Over sixty Ugandan and international NGOs issued a joint press statement in Kampala this week calling on the Uganda government to stop its plans of licensing out the Ngaji oil block at the DRC border in order to preserve the pristine environment of the Virunga National Park.
Virunga National Park is Africa's oldest national park with a wide diversity of habitants and exceptional biodiversity, including the nearly extinct mountain gorillas.
The NGOs, who include international campaigner Global Witness and the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Oil and Gas, are also asking the international oil companies not to accept any license for the Ngaji block. They further call upon the DRC government to refrain from granting any new licenses or transfer of licenses in Virunga National Park.
The 895 sq.km. Ngaji block is part of the six blocks that the government plans to license out soon. It covers Lake Edward and part of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The other five blocks are Ngassa (410 Sq.Km) in Hoima District, Taitai & Karuka (565 Sq.Km.) in Buliisa District, Mvule (344 Sq.Km) in Moyo and Yumbe Districts as well as Turaco (425 Sq.Km) and Kanywantaba (344 Sq.Km) in Ntoroko District.
Seventeen oil companies have expressed interest in the blocks that will be awarded possibly in the next few weeks in Uganda's first competitive licensing round.
According to the statement, an estimated 200,000 fishermen and local people depend on Lake Edward for their livelihoods. "Any oil activities in this area could do significant damage on the lake, the broader ecosystem and people and animals that depend on it," reads the statement in part. "This could include adverse impacts from drilling, road construction, increased population or water pollution."
The NGOs argue that Queen Elizabeth National Park is responsible for a third of all visits to Uganda's national parks and is a major draw for international tourists who contribute to around 8 percent of Uganda's GDP, a figure comparable with anticipated earnings from oil. "Oil exploration is likely to lead to a significant fall in visitor numbers in what is an internationally competitive and notoriously fickle market," the statement reads. "The Wider Virunga area could be worth a lot more to both countries as an area of outstanding natural beauty and source of critical ecosystem services than as an oil testing ground."
Last year, UNESCO's Director for the World Heritage Center, Kishore Rao, wrote to the Head of Uganda's Permanent Delegation to UNESCO expressing reservations about Uganda's planned oil activities in the Lake Edward area.
"We would like to draw your attention to the fact that the World Heritage Committee has adopted a clear position that oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status... ", he wrote. "I would like to recall that Virunga national park is a world heritage property and also a Ramsar site, inscribed on the list of wetlands of international importance.
This site is situated in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and managed by the state party of DRC," he added. "Nevertheless, the statement of outstanding universal values of the property refers on several occasions to the importance of Lake Edward and its flood plains. Therefore, the potential oil drilling could become a trans boundary issue," read the letter, dated 24th August.
Last year, SOCO International carried out seismic surveys on the DRC side of Lake Edward but the company has not yet published the results of its exploration. However, the exercise attracted massive local and international opposition, forcing SOCO to declare it had lost interest in the Virunga oil block.