Congo Park Could Earn $1.1 Billion a Year Without Oil, WWF Says

Africa’s oldest national park, which the Democratic Republic of Congo has opened up for oil exploration, may generate $1.1 billion annually without crude production, the World Wildlife Fund said.

Virunga Park could provide about 45,000 permanent jobs through tourism, fisheries and investments in hydropower, the WWF said today in an e-mailed report prepared by Dalberg Global Development Advisors. The reserve is home to an active volcano and animals including about 200 mountain gorillas in danger of extinction, hippopotamuses and chimpanzees.

Soco International Plc, a U.K. oil company, and France’s Total SA have oil blocks that overlap with Virunga, located in eastern Congo. Total has committed not to drill in the park. Soco should abandon its exploration plans, the WWF said.

“Oil extraction here could have devastating consequences for local communities that rely on Virunga for fish, drinking water and their other needs,” Raymond Lumbuenamo, Congo country director for WWF, said in a separate e-mailed statement today.

In June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Unesco, which has labelled Virunga a World Heritage Site, urged Congo’s government “to cancel all the oil exploitation permits granted within the property.”

Congo is conducting a strategic assessment of the 800,000-hectare (1.98 million-acre) park, which is funded by the European Union.

Conservation Decision

After the EU completes its report “we will have all the necessary instruments to decide whether we will privilege conservation or not,” Environmental Minister Bavon N’sa Mputu told reporters in April. Soco will still need to get approval from the government for an exploitation permit.

Soco is undertaking aerial surveys of Congo’s oil block 5 in an area of Virunga encompassing savannah and Lake Edward, according to the company.

“We believe that responsibly conducted commercial activities can provide important measures of stability by significantly enhancing local and regional economies, thereby raising living standards for local communities,” Soco says on its website.

The park, originally called Albert National Park, was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium and initially meant to protect gorillas in the forests of the Virunga Mountains, according to its website. Its boundaries were expanded to encompass Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains and it now covers 7,800 square kilometers (3,012 square miles).

The park has faced pressure over the years from poaching, an influx of refugees from the Rwanda genocide, and a series of internal conflicts including the Kivu War in which rebel forces took over the site’s head office, according to the website.

The M23 rebel group, which has fought with Congo’s national army for more than a year in North Kivu province, controls territory that includes parts of Virunga. About 2,000 tourists visited the park in 2010 from none in 2008.

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