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20th Jan 2019

Investigation

Black gold in Virunga, curse or saviour?

  • Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, flattening much of Goma (Photo: Andrew Willis)

A sign in Kinshasa's international airport reads 'Tourism: the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)." It is ironic given the current state of play. For instead of a warm welcome, visitors arriving at the N'Djili aerodrome are more likely to be greeted with interrogation, extortion and possible deportation, helping to drive tourist flows to more tranquil destinations.

Meanwhile, the government of President Joseph Kabila is hamstrung by lack of capital, holding back badly needed development in the impoverished Central African country. Next door, states such as Rwanda and Uganda are reaping millions of dollars in eco-tourism each year, despite the DRC's more varied biodiversity.

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  • A village on the edge of the Virunga National Park (Photo: Andrew Willis)

Deep in the rainforest of the Congo River Basin, Emmanuel De Merode is keenly aware of the difficult situation. "Our biggest problem for developing tourism is people being turned away. That and the insecurity," says the Belgian-born director of the Virunga National Park, a wildlife paradise almost entirely funded by the European Union in recent years. "I'd say we have lost 40 percent of our potential tourists that way this year, and those are the ones who weren't put off from at least trying." A newly created tourist visa may help, but it remains to be seen.

De Merode gets up from his seat on the terrace of the park's 1930s headquarters and points to the lawn. There, only meters away, a family of baboons are marching across the grass, stopping briefly to examine a large pole flying the Congolese flag. Further afield, tall hardwoods and lush green undergrowth pack tightly around the camp, full of insects and exotic birdlife. A group of colobus monkeys rustle in the treetops high above. The rainy season has arrived.

For many, the key attraction of Africa's oldest national park is its population of rare mountain gorillas, which were once protected by zoologist Dian Fossey. Murdered in 1985 by a machete blow to the head, Hollywood's depiction of Fossey and her work - 'Gorillas in the Mist' - helped raise awareness, but the animals remain endangered today due to habitat loss, poaching and the Ebola virus.

Others come to catch a glimpse of the elusive okapi, leopard, hippo, elephant, pangolin and giraffe, or to peer inside one of the active volcanoes that dot this geographical wonderland, part of Africa's Rift Valley. The region's rich volcanic soil is a boon to local inhabitants who grow vegetables in abundance, but the underground fault line can prove to be a double-edged sword.

In 2002, Mount Nyiragongo on the parks southern periphery erupted, sending a wall of molten lava through the nearby city of Goma. "Nyiragongo is just 18 km from a city of one million people," stresses Dario Tedesco, an expert volcanologist working for the UN in the area. "Its lavas are considered the most fluid in the world, travelling down its flank at almost 100 km/h." The EU, among others, is funding a detailed monitoring programme to help improve warnings and prevent another disaster.

There are other dangers in the park, including a hotbed of armed groups, a legacy from the First (1996-1997) and Second Congo Wars (1998-2003) during which neighbouring states sought to affect regime change in Kinshasa. They include a ragtag collection of local Mai-Mai militias and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu group which opposes Tutsi control in Kigali. So far this year, 11 park rangers have been killed in raids or gun battles.

Despite all this, it is a separate issue that has grabbed the attention of key power brokers back in Kinshasa, forcing its way onto the agenda of elections this November.

The discovery of oil several years ago in the Albertine Rift, an area which takes in the Ugandan and Congolese shores of Lake Albert (half way up the park), has been heralded in Uganda as a chance for greater prosperity. Exploration has gone ahead but has proven to be controversial.

In the DRC, Soco International and Dominion Petroleum last year won presidential approval to look for oil in Block 5, an area which includes large parts of the Virunga National Park. But the companies were stunned in March when the DRC's environment minister Jose Endundo rejected Soco's environmental impact assessment, essentially banning the two firms from prospecting for the time being.

"Soco seems to have discovered to their great surprise that some laws in the DRC are enforced," says De Merode who originally pressed charges against the firm. For many however, the company's experience in Virunga is the exception that proves the rule.

Across the border, the question of illegal backhanders is creating a storm, with Ugandan MP Gerald Karuhanga accusing the country's prime minister, foreign minister and energy minister of accepting bribes from the UK-based firm, Tullow Oil.

To tackle this, the Publish What You Pay coalition of civil society groups wants companies to publish how much they hand over to the governments of resource-rich countries in the form of royalties and taxes. This, they argue, will make it easier to see whether natural riches are benefiting the wider population of these frequently poor states, or just a select few.

In July last year, Washington brought forward a list of new reporting requirements that will apply to firms listed on the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Now, argue the likes of George Soros, Bill Gates and Bono, other regions including the EU must do the same, to ensure that companies such as Tullow Oil and Soco International are also covered.

The battle for transparency

The European Commission's response came this October in a proposal to reform the EU's existing transparency directive. Importantly say pressure groups, the commission plans will require firms in the extractive industry to publish details on a project-by-project basis, giving both local communities and company investors a clearer picture of what is going on. In addition, large non-listed firms are also covered by the proposals, as are logging companies.

"On this issue of transparency we are going further than any other country in the world," insisted Internal Market commissioner Michel Barnier following the document's publication on 25 October. "Firms operating in Africa, for example, will have to comply."

But a battle is underway to ensure new rules will not hurt company profits, waged in particular by a collection of oil and gas firms who have hired the Brussels' lobby outfit, GPlus. With €12.9 billion in profits in the first half of 2011 alone, Shell is among those arguing against the greater financial reporting. The struggle now moves to the European Parliament and EU member states, with Germany among those known to be hostile to the commission's plans.

Meanwhile the fate of Virunga hangs in the balance. The EU office in Kinshasa has commissioned a study to assess the impacts of potential oil exploitation in the park, but environmentalists are worried that the government could give the go-ahead at any minute.

"We are on a timer and under great pressure to show that the park can make a profit," says De Merode of his eco-tourism drive.

This article is the second in a series that EUobserver will be publishing ahead of the general elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo on 28 November 2011.

Congo fatigue: EU funding in the heart of Africa

The Democratic Republic of Congo was last year the largest recipient of EU support among ACP states. But critics say this approach has failed, drawing a question mark over the EU's next step.

Kabila re-elected in Congo

The international community calls for calm as the main opposition leader declares himself victor.

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