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Drilling Africa’s Arctic

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’.


  • Mike is a young environmentalist. He is also very interested in issues relating to consumerism, consumption, and the capitalist system in Africa. Mike also has his a worm farm, rides a bike to work, and doesn't own a television. He loves reading, going for long runs, and is humbly learning to surf.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 25 March 2012

    The more we all fight the OPEC and oil company monopoly of everything, including the USA senate, and their tame “climate change” scientists, the better.

  2. Benzo Benzo 25 March 2012

    Closer to home, the deafening silence on the fracking plans in the Karoo is frightening.

  3. MLH MLH 26 March 2012

    Our ‘oiled economies’ or our oily economies?

  4. Steven Steven 26 March 2012

    What does climate change have to do with drilling for oil? While I agree that we have an extraordinary dependence on oil, I fear you have been reading too much Al Gore.

  5. Mike Baillie Mike Baillie Post author | 26 March 2012

    Steven, how don’t you see the link between oil drilling and climate change? Do you think we drill for oil just to look at it?

    No, we drill for oil to use it — and using it results in carbon emissions, which drive climate change. It’s not a matter of reading too much Al Gore, it’s the scientific consensus.

  6. Lennon Lennon 26 March 2012

    @ Mike: At some point this will all end. The question is when and why?

    Either we continue drilling until there is no more oil (at which point even more ecosystems will have been destroyed) or we find alternatives to oil as quickly as possible (prefereable, methinks).

    There are several problems though:
    1) The Rift is rich in natural resources – oil, gold, diamonds and coltan. All of these products are in high demand. It is also home to extremely fertile soil, thanks to the tectonic / volcanic activity which created the Rift in the first place.

    2) The people in these regions live in abject poverty. Harvesting these resources is a much-needed source of income which means that any form of nature conservation will take a back seat as this (for most) does not put food on their tables.

    3) Greed on the part of foreign-owned mining / drilling companies and the local authorities. Why would they care about the region so long as they make a profit. The foreign companies are not exactly reigned in by their own governments either so they can and (probably) will get away with it.

  7. Lennon Lennon 26 March 2012

    I am confused about one thing though…

    The UN wants to force carbon taxes on us, right? How can this be allowed when every viable alternative (including the electric car) is denied to us?

    How can you charge farmers for their cattle farting?

    How long before we’re charged for breathing?

  8. The Creator The Creator 26 March 2012

    So, except for a few surviving gorillas, the whole park has been trashed by the Ugandan invasions and the Congolese civil conflict, and now you want to rescue the smoking ruins from oil development.

    Seems a bit pointless, actually, quite apart from the fact that you have no means of doing that.

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 27 March 2012

    We need to get off oil and save ecosystems and food production for lots of reasons – but climate change will happen, like it always has, and carbon taxes are a trick to push us from cheap coal to expensive oil.

  10. Steven Steven 28 March 2012


    Unfortunately the “scientific consensus” you speak of is anything but. There is no conclusive proof that human activities that produce carbon emissions are responsible for driving climate change.

  11. Steven Steven 28 March 2012

    I am sure you are all aware of “What’s Up With That?” ( It’s a fantastic resource where scientific theory is unashamedly scrutinised.

  12. Steven Steven 28 March 2012

    Sorry spell check kicked in ….“Watt’s Up With That?” (

  13. Kelle Branaman Kelle Branaman 31 March 2012

    Oh I hate FNB. I can not tell you the drama we had in December whenwe wanted to increase the limit on my business credit card with jus R 5000,00. At the end we just closed the account and moved to the blue bank. Which I love btw because they are always so friendly.

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