Market News

 November 17, 2014
Oil Dispute Takes a Page From Congo's Bloody Past

 VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo --- The trouble started when a British company suddenly appeared in this iconic and spectacularly beautiful national park, prospecting for oil.

Villagers who opposed the project were beaten by government soldiers. A park warden, who tried to block the oil company, SOCO International, from building a cellphone tower in the park, was kidnapped and tortured. Virunga's director, a Belgian prince, was shot and nearly killed hours after he delivered a secret report on the oil company's activities.

Much like the fight over drilling on federal lands in the United States, the struggle over oil exploration in Africa's national parks is a classic quandary, pitting economic development against environmental preservation.

But out here, the quest for oil seems to be more volatile, and the stakes are arguably higher --- on both sides.

While West Africa has been a major hydrocarbon producer for decades, new technology like deeper drilling has led to a bonanza of new energy discoveries here on the continent's east side.

Oil companies are now circling several African parks like this one, home to critically endangered wildlife, such as colossal silverback mountain gorillas, among the last of their kind.

But development is far more than just a buzzword here. The people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, northern Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique --- all places of recent hydrocarbon finds --- are among the poorest in the world, many without electricity or clean water, their children often facing relentless illness and few prospects.

African governments say they have a moral obligation to pursue anything that might lift their countries out of grinding poverty, including drilling for oil in pristine natural environments.

With an unprecedented surge of oil activity in this region, environmentalists vowed to "draw the line" here in Virunga, Africa's oldest national park and a Unesco World Heritage Site, protected for its "outstanding universal value" to all humankind. The World Wildlife Fund swung into action, signing up hundreds of thousands of supporters in a global campaign.

In June, it made a triumphant announcement: "Major Conservation Win: Oil Company Backs Off Oil Exploration in Africa's Oldest National Park." It looked like a happy ending for the gorillas and the trees.

There's just one problem: It might not be true.

In a private letter sent the same day the environmentalists were savoring their victory, SOCO International reassured the Congolese government that it was continuing to evaluate seismic data so that "the D.R.C. government can take all appropriate measures to pursue, or not, such exploration."

A few days later, the company's chairman, Rui de Sousa, said at SOCO's annual general meeting, "We have not pulled out."

Virunga's champions say that if they lose the battle here, it will open the floodgates to drilling in protected spaces across the continent.

The park is considered one of the most biodiverse slices of the planet. Its savannas of yellow grass, towering volcanoes bubbling with lava, jungles, swamps and cloud forests constitute an otherworldly world for gorillas, elephants, lions and chimps --- a rare mix.

Beyond that, Virunga's Lake Edward, where the oil is believed to lie, is part of the headwaters of the Nile. While SOCO has said it will not proceed without Unesco and Congolese approval, an oil spill here could contaminate water that tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, rely on.

"Any toxins from here could flow up to the Mediterranean," said Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga's director. "It could reach all the way to Spain."

Mr. de Merode has made countless enemies over the years. He routinely confronts rebels, poachers and various other outlaws who skulk through Virunga, which lies on the border of Rwanda and Uganda, in the eye of several recent wars.

In April, he was driving back from the Congolese city of Goma, where he had just delivered a confidential report to state prosecutors about suspicions of illegal oil activities in Virunga. A group of men in fatigues popped out of the bushes and raised their rifles.

"You ever been shot?" Mr. de Merode said, recounting the ambush. "It's like getting winded. But it doesn't knock you down, like in the movies."

He said he dived into the bushes with his gun and fired wildly back.

The shooters, who have yet to be identified but are suspected of being rogue government soldiers, vanished. Mr. de Merode staggered into the road. He had been hit in the stomach and the chest. Several aid agency cars whooshed past, reluctant to pick up a man with blood splattered all over him.

He waved down two motorcyclists, who sped to an army checkpoint and hustled him into a truck. But as his life was slipping away, the army truck ran out of gas.

"I had to reach into my pocket and give them 20 bucks" in bloodied bills, Mr. de Merode said.

The truck then broke down and could not be restarted, and Mr. de Merode needed two more rides before barely making it to a hospital.

The House of Merode is a family of Belgian nobility. Mr. de Merode, 44, was born a prince, and his two young daughters, who live in Kenya, are princesses. He spends most of his time in Congo, in a mountainside tent, getting paid $800 a month by the Congolese government.

"I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing," he said, "just a little bit more."

It may take a lot more. Environmentalists have seen how malleable the boundaries of protected areas can be.

The Selous Game Reserve, also a Unesco World Heritage Site, in neighboring Tanzania, is one of the largest protected areas left in Africa. It is also where large quantities of uranium were discovered.

In 2012, the Tanzanian government persuaded the World Heritage Committee, the international body that designates World Heritage Sites, to modify the Selous's boundaries so that the uranium area would lie just outside the site and mining could begin. Several observers at the meetings said some committee members had environmental concerns, but ultimately did not want to appear as if they were trying to keep Africans poor --- or valuing animals over humans.

Many predict something similar in store for Virunga.

Officially, the Congolese government has stayed mum. Many observers say President Joseph Kabila is waiting to see how much oil is actually in Virunga. If there are billions of barrels, as in neighboring Uganda, they suspect the Congolese government will redraw Virunga's boundaries or possibly rename it as a new park --- minus Lake Edward.

"This is the battle not only for the oldest national park in Africa, it's also the battle for maintaining the World Heritage Convention," said Guy Debonnet, who has worked for the Unesco World Heritage Center. "If Virunga goes, many others will follow."

Congo has a long history of spectacular riches creating spectacular misery, going back more than 100 years when the Belgians brutalized the country for rubber, ivory, copper and other minerals. More recently, Ugandan and Rwandan militias killed thousands to plunder coltan and gold.

Now residents around Virunga worry that oil could set off a new conflict.

Paluku Mukosa Minos, a fisherman, said government soldiers had recently beaten to death two of his friends for opposing oil exploration. Mr. Minos and other fishermen spoke of "askari wa SOCO" --- SOCO's soldiers --- and a Congolese Army officer described corrupt elements within the ranks.

"Certain soldiers are taking money from SOCO," Capt. J. B. Bukasa said, adding that such allegations were well known. "That's the problem. Everything is money, and SOCO has so much money."

In the new documentary "Virunga," hidden camera footage reveals what appears to be a Congolese Army officer trying to bribe one of Virunga's wardens.

In another scene, the Congolese officer introduces the warden to someone identified as a SOCO security adviser, who hands the warden an envelope "just to say thank you."

The same warden, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, said in a recent interview that he later tried to stop workers from erecting an antenna commissioned by SOCO in the park. He said he was kidnapped by Congolese soldiers who burned cigarettes on his scalp, which was documented in a Human Rights Watch report.

"They said I was the enemy," Mr. Katembo said.

SOCO denied a role in any violence. Its lawyers criticized the film as "one-sided, inaccurate and misrepresentative," saying that the hidden camera scenes did not "in any way substantiate" the bribery allegations.

In June, SOCO signed a joint declaration with the World Wildlife Fund, saying it would not drill in Virunga "unless Unesco and the D.R.C. government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status." SOCO has also said it would not harm buffer zones adjacent to World Heritage Sites.

Mr. de Merode and those who worked with him on the Virunga documentary were furious that the World Wildlife Fund agreed to the declaration.

"We had a massive support base, and overnight that support base was wiped out," said Joanna Natasegara, the film's producer. "The declaration said Virunga was safe, SOCO was gone, and everyone could move on to the next fight."

World Wildlife Fund executives now acknowledge that the battle over Virunga is hardly over. SOCO has yet to relinquish its operating permits or commit to an unconditional withdrawal.

"They're leaving the door open," said Zach Abraham, director of the World Wildlife Fund's global campaigns.

Still, he said, "there are so many losing fights around the planet, if we don't take a moment to celebrate achievements, we lose an important opportunity."

"You need to remind the audience these fights are worth fighting," Mr. Abraham said. "Virunga is one of the most incredibly beautiful places you will ever see in your entire life."