No primate blood for oil!

Bonobo Bonobos are smaller than chimpanzees. (© Guenter Guni/iStock)

Some of the last mountain gorillas roam the forests of Virunga National Park. The Congolese government, however, is less interested in this priceless treasure than in the dollar value of the oil under the protected areas – and it now wants to allow drilling in Virunga and Salonga. Please sign our petition and tell them NO!

Call to action

To: the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, and Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala Nzenze

Virunga and Salonga National Parks are crucial for the survival of gorillas and bonobos. Do not sacrifice them to business interests.

Read letter

For wildlife lovers, the name Virunga has a magical ring. The national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a refuge for some of the planet’s last mountain gorillas, guarded by rangers who risk their lives to protect the great apes. Salonga National Park is a key habitat for bonobos, home to around 40 percent of the remaining population.

It’s not surprising that UNESCO declared the areas World Heritage Sites in 1979 and 1984.

Now, Congolese President Kabila wants to delist thousands of square kilometers of the parks. The government feels that it has a right to exploit mineral wealth anywhere within its borders – and it is not about to let a World Heritage Site or two stand in its way. If the plan is realized, it would make a mockery of the whole concept of protected areas.

The controversy centers around drilling for oil. A total of nearly 4,500 square kilometers are to be opened. Bloomberg reports the area to be as much as 16,700 square kilometers. The threat to the environment that this would entail is alarming. Exploring and drilling would:

destroy the habitat of bonobos and gorillas, as well as many other species

trash forests that are crucial to protecting our climate

endanger the habitat of migratory birds

– pollute the Congo and Nile river systems

In May, a total of 19 environmental organizations from the province of North Kivu published an open letter (in French) to warn of the impact of shrinking the national parks. They now want to mobilize the people of the region to step up the pressure on the government in Kinshasa. Their goal is to collect 100,000 signatures on a national petition.

The Congolese activists have asked us to launch a parallel, worldwide campaign to protect Virunga and Salonga.

Please sign our petition – gorillas and bonobos need your voice.

Back­ground

Bonobos – little-known primates

All four anthropoid ape species are currently endangered: Orangutans are facing extinction in Southeast Asia, while chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos are being pushed to the brink in Africa. In many regions, apes have little chance of survival outside of extensive protected areas.

Bonobos are the least known ape species. A total of around 15,000 of them can be found only south of the Congo river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their habitat thus does not overlap with that of the chimpanzees, who live north of the mighty river.

One particular bonobo behavior is often highlighted: the animals resolve conflicts with free sex. If two unknown bonobo groups meet, females sometimes approach each other and rub their genitals together in missionary position. Males play with the juveniles of the other group. Bonobo families are led by a matriarch. Bonobos thus exhibit a completely different behavior than chimpanzees, where alpha males rule, sexualized violence is widespread and clashes between two groups can in some cases turn deadly. While the bonobos get along with peaceful behavior and diplomacy, chimpanzees rely on aggression.

Virunga and Salonga National Parks

Salonga National Park is one of the largest rainforest reserves in the world and covers 36,000 square kilometers in the heart of the Congo Basin – an area nearly the size of Switzerland. The park can only be reached via rivers. It is home to around 40 percent of the world’s bonobo population, as well as forest elephants, pangolins, 129 species of fish and 223 species of birds.

As recently as 2017, scientists discovered the world’s largest tropical peat forest at Cuvette Centrale. Since the destruction of a peat forest releases massive amounts of carbon, ensuring that Salonga National Park stays intact is also crucial for climate protection.

Virunga National Park is located in eastern Congo. At 7,900 square kilometers, it is about five times the area of London. Around one quarter of all critically endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) live in the park near the border to Rwanda.

Due to threats such as poaching and civil wars, both national parks are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage in Danger: Virunga since 1994, Salonga since 1999.

Downgrading protected areas

The Congolese government plans to strip a total of 21.5 percent of Virunga National Park of its protected status: 400 square kilometers in concession block 5 and 1,320 square kilometers in block 4.

In Salonga, 2,767 square kilometers would be affected (blocks 1 and 2). According to Bloomberg, the area impacted could be up to 15,000 square kilometers, or around 40 percent of the national park. The state oil company, Sonahydroc, and Compagnie Miniere Congolaise SPRL (COMICO) intend to explore for oil there.

Reducing the size of protected areas to benefit business interests is a worldwide problem, particularly in the United States, Brazil, Cambodia and Tanzania. Experts refer to it as “Protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement” (PADDD). This exposes areas already affected by illegal threats such as poaching and logging to additional quasi-legal dangers with the government's approval. The most widespread of these is the awarding of mining and oil concessions.

COMICO, an opaque oil company

The NGO Global Witness took a closer look at COMICO, an oil company whose concession overlaps with Salonga National Park. Despite persistent research, it was not able to identify who is actually behind the company. It is striking that four offshore companies became stakeholders in COMICO about the time the oil concession was approved. Today, 60 percent of the shares belong to unknown holders. The contracts with COMICO were not published within 60 days as required by law, making corruption and illegal financial transactions appear likely.

Global Witness sees a connection between the opaque deal and the upcoming presidential election in December 2018. President Joseph Kabila may not be prepared to leave office after two electoral terms as required by the constitution, and may be looking to fill his “war chest” or enrich himself personally with the oil business.

In a document dated 17/18 September 2013, COMICO sets out how the exploitation of oil reserves in the concessions and thus in Salonga National Park could be organized. The exploration is to take place using pontoons, and the oil is to be transported to Kinshasa via the Congo and other rivers.

In addition to COMICO, the South African company Dig Oil has concessions in Congo that cover one third of Salonga National Park. If COMICO is allowed to start exploration, a complete sellout of the protected area to the oil industry is virtually inevitable.

International pressure is effective

International pressure works, as the case of SOCO has shown: In 2014, the British company dropped its plans to explore for oil at Lake Edward in Virunga National Park after public resistance became too great. Allegations of corruption are likely to have played a role as well.

Letter

To: the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila, and Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala Nzenze

Dear Mr. President,
Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are crucial to the survival of great apes: some of the last mountain gorillas live in Virunga National Park, while Salonga National Park is the habitat of a major population of endangered bonobos, a species that is found in no other country.

You therefore have a special responsibility for the protection of these primates.

Your government is nevertheless planning to authorize oil exploration and drilling in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is seeking to reduce the size of the protected areas.

This would have a profound ecological impact. Opening Virunga and Salonga National Parks to oil exploration would:

– destroy the habitat of bonobos, gorillas and many other species
– result in the clearing of forests that are crucial to protecting our climate
– endanger the habitat of migratory birds
– risk polluting the Nile and Congo river systems

Your country has pledged to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We ask that you continue to honor this commitment, as you have done in the past. The efforts of your government and the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect nature is crucial to the survival of gorillas and bonobos.

Please ensure that the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are not violated in favor of business interests.

Yours faithfully,

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