The Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest Unesco World Heritage Site, is situated along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.
It contains more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area on the continent. It has an exceptional diversity of landscapes stretching from the glaciers of the Ruwenzori mountains, to indigenous rainforests, savannas, rivers, and lakes. It’s also one of the last places in Africa where mountain gorillas still survive.
Virunga National Park is also critically important for human life, providing very beneficial ecosystem services, such as freshwater, a sink for our carbon emissions, and substantial revenues to local communities in the form of gorilla tourism and fishing.
Now it’s all under threat. A British oil company, SOCO — and others including Total — are looking to explore for oil reserves in the park.
If the exploration were to go ahead, a sickening trend of oil über alles [above all] would continue. We see it in Canada where 4.3-million hectares of boreal forest has been scrapped and degraded in the pursuit of oil. It’s also happening in the Arctic, where, as ice melts due to climate change, the likes of Shell are setting their sights on new oil drilling sites in areas that were previously out of reach.
The Virunga National Park is Africa’s arctic: there’s no question about the effect oil drilling would have on such a vulnerable environment. It would cripple the park’s ecosystem and we’d lose a part of our planet that is entirely irreplaceable. Such abundant wilderness cannot be quantified and set on a balance sheet to be traded off for more barrels of oil.
I ask myself at what point our ‘civilisation’ will admit that our addiction to oil is no longer permissible, that the costs of each new barrel are now far outweighing the incremental benefits. When will we realise that even if our entire economy runs on oil, our very existence depends on a much greater system — a system our oiled economy is ravaging?
And even if “there is no alternative to oil”, there’s certainly no alternative to our ecosystem and the services it provides us. If the planet cannot afford the extremes we are going to for our oil, then nor can we — regardless of how good that extra barrel of oil will make our GDP’s look. We are barrelling our way down a path that is wholly unsustainable, and the longer we stay on it, the harder it is to turn back.
I’ll be honest — I can’t fathom what abandoning oil would look like in the immediate future. But if the current trend continues, we do have a very good idea of what the not-too-distant future will look like: it’s not pretty.
We — you and I — have to face that Shell, SOCO, and many other oil companies are not going to voluntarily stop drilling for oil. They will keep pushing the boundaries, making unconventional oil the new normal. They will remain willing to trade the immediate value of oil for that which is invaluable. If this is to stop, it’s up to us.
We have to draw a line in the sand, marking out the point we will not allow oil companies to cross. Recently this took the form of the Keystone XL pipeline protests in the States, but there have been many other instances where citizens have stood up in protest. The Virunga National Park must become one more of those instances, a point where we say that drilling for oil is not a matter of ‘profit’ or ‘development’, it’s ‘ecocide’.