The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has decided to degazette parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to allow for oil drilling. Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the decision to open up Virunga and Salonga national parks - a move that is likely to jeopardise a regional treaty on the protection of Africa's most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla.
The Congolese government says it reserves the right to authorise oil drilling anywhere in the country. A cabinet statement said the government would proceed with plans to declassify sections of the parks in a country where immense natural wealth has yielded endemic state corruption and suffering for the Congolese people.
Detractors say the plan would endanger wildlife and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The two national parks are home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species. Salonga covers 33 350 km2 of the Congo Basin, the world's second largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks.
African World Heritage Sites recognises the two national parks as having been in danger since 1994 and 1999 respectively. At the top of its list of the 10 greatest threats are mining and mineral exploitation.
Although many of these areas are protected, poaching and the illicit trade in wildlife pose a serious and ongoing threat. The plan to degazette 1 720 km2 in the eastern DRC, about 21.5% of Virunga, is likely to reverse gains made in conservation efforts and exacerbate this threat.
Collaboration to protect mountain gorillas in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda began in 2015
On 7 April, a council of ministers from the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development. The inaugural ministerial meeting set the deadline for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty.
The Virunga National Park is part of the 13 800 km2 Greater Virunga Landscape, which straddles the eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda. The landscape is home to over half the global population of 880 mountain gorillas and the park is home to most of them.
The area boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It also boasts a Ramsar Site (Lake George and Lake Edward) and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (in Queen Elizabeth National Park). It is the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift - home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.
The treaty entrenches the responsibility of the three countries to prevent 'illegal wildlife trade and poaching in protected areas, as well as increasing the punishment for lawbreakers', according to the president of the first GVTC council of ministers, Rwanda's Trade and Industry Minister Vincent Munyeshyaka.
The partnership to protect mountain gorillas in Uganda, the DRC and Rwanda formally began in September 2015. It is now a broader mechanism for strategic and collaborative management between the three governments. The plans by the DRC government could necessitate a renegotiation of the treaty and put the deadline for ratification in limbo.
The DRC government's plans are a setback for the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration treaty
So far, the GVTC's collective law enforcement efforts have yielded positive results in combating poaching and wildlife crime. The number of mountain gorillas and elephants has grown in the past decade. Executive secretary Dr Muamba Tshibasu Georges told the Institute for Security Studies in March that the GVTC had managed to reduce ivory poaching by 50% in the past five years.
According to the Greater Virunga Landscape 2016 annual report, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was half the yearly average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures. It cites a case study on Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted, with over 230 sentenced.
These trends show how combined transnational efforts can effectively combat poaching. The GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way. The unilateral decision by the DRC government is likely to jeopardise this collaboration and undermine efforts to ensure transparency.
Opening the areas will probably also see more armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. This will endanger the lives of rangers at the Virunga National Park, who already risk life and limb to curb poaching. Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996.
Militias often kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the park for both meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda. The profits fund the armed groups' operations.
Opening DRC's pristine areas sets a bad precedent and increases vulnerability to poachers and criminals
Over 80% of the Greater Virunga Landscape is covered by oil concessions and this makes it a target for state resource exploitation purely for economic gain. The opening of these pristine areas sets a bad precedent and makes the area even more vulnerable to poachers and other criminals.
With the treaty's ratification now in limbo, the momentum of ongoing collaboration within neighbouring communities through tourism development might be lost as attention shifts instead to oil production. It could also diminish the GVTC's 'zero poaching strategy' to counter poaching through cross-border dialogue between communities and security forces.
The delay in ratifying the treaty will have a knock-on effect on the harmonisation of legal and policy frameworks on wildlife-related crimes - that is, where all three states have laws with punitive measures that effectively deter wildlife crime.
The DRC is rich in almost every valuable natural resource but this wealth has not delivered economic benefits and development during the country's decades of bad governance. Its failed system of weak state institutions and pervasive impunity has seen those involved in the illicit exploitation of natural resources go largely unpunished.
Apart from resource exploitation, a lack of political will and leadership are among the top 10 threats to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites across Africa. Opening the two parks shows a failure of political will to conserve the globally recognised heritage sites in a country that doesn't necessarily need to exploit the oil resources for survival.
Duncan E Omondi Gumba, Regional Coordinator East and Horn of Africa, ENACT project, ISS Nairobi
A version of this article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.