IN DANGER: The rare and endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga National Park are threatened again by plans to search for oil, drawing global protests. Picture: ALEJANDRO PALACIO
IN DANGER: The rare and endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga National Park are threatened again by plans to search for oil, drawing global protests. Picture: ALEJANDRO PALACIO

Kinshasa — The Democratic Republic of Congo is considering whether to open up swathes of two world-famous national parks to oil exploration.

A decision to allow a search for crude may threaten Virunga National Park, home to many of the about 1,000 mountain gorillas still alive, and Salonga National Park, the world’s second-biggest tropical rainforest reserve.

A committee is being established to debate the proposal as Congo plans to increase crude output from the 25,000 barrels a day it produces from ageing oil blocks along the Atlantic Ocean coast.

"We are in the middle of putting together this inter-institutional commission," Emmanuel Kayumba, chief of staff in DRC’s oil ministry, said in an interview in the capital, Kinshasa.

Mountain gorillas are critically endangered, according to the Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation. They’re mainly found in eastern Congo, along with neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, where they serve as an attraction for tourists who pay to trek into forests to view the apes.

Virunga is home to more than 600 mountain gorillas and more than 170 rangers have been killed guarding the animals over the past two decades.

Salonga was created in 1970 to protect endemic species such as the bonobo ape and Congo peacock.

Protected areas

The ministry is recruiting members from the presidency, parliament and the government, as well as civil society organisations, Kayumba said. The commission will recommend whether or not the authorities should press ahead with shrinking the two parks to permit exploration and production in areas that are currently protected, Kayumba said.

In February, President Joseph Kabila approved a production-sharing contract between the state and closely held Compagnie Miniere Congolaise, or Comico, for three oil blocks in the Cuvette Centrale region.

Sections of the permits border on Salonga, while part of one licence is inside the park’s perimeter.

In DRC’s east, two unallocated concessions are either entirely or partly inside Virunga’s borders. London-based Soco International gave up one of the permits — Block 5 — in 2015 under pressure from environmental groups.

"The DRC is committed to not carrying out any oil exploration or production in protected areas," Kayumba said. "Even if the commission comes to a conclusion that we can explore or produce oil, we will do it in respect of the laws and regulations in force, whether local or international."

Public inquiry

Any decision to change the classification of parts of Virunga and Salonga would have to be supported by an environmental audit and a public inquiry before the Congolese cabinet could approve it, according to Kayumba. "It’s a long procedure," he said.

Congo has long planned to boost production by issuing licences in the centre and east of the country, and passed a new oil law in 2015, but progress has been slow.

Oil Minister Aime Ngoy Mukena submitted a briefing to the government in late March concerning potential oil exploration in areas presently within the two parks.

Mukena asked the government to allow him to establish the commission to study the potential declassification of about 15,000km², or approximately 40%, of Salonga and about 1,700km², or 22%, of Virunga, according to the briefing.

Congo’s cabinet decided on June 8 "to accept the minister’s proposal to create an inter-institutional commission", Kayumba said.

The ministry has already contacted the World Wildlife Fund, which co-manages Salonga, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which supports both parks, about participating, he said.

While companies, whose names he declined to make public, have expressed interest in the licences inside Virunga, the government will resolve the question of declassification before issuing the permits, Kayumba said.