By Dr Hans Friederich, Regional Director of IUCN's Office for Europe

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is known for its mountain gorillas. Despite the ongoing conflict in the eastern DRC which has badly affected the Park and the people working in it, the Park still stands strong. With the relatively stable situation we see today, gorilla tourism is developing and this provides an income to many Congolese people living in and around the Park.

Photo by IUCN Jim ThorsellVirunga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the World Heritage Convention forbids oil development in World Heritage sites. This is also prohibited under national legislation. The Congolese government has started a full Strategic Environmental Assessment in all the oil concession areas in and around Virunga but this study is not yet complete. Several European oil companies have received concessions from the Congolese government to start investigations, and aerial surveys have started.

So why is this an issue for the IUCN Regional Office for Europe? The European Commission, and some of its Member States have provided millions of Euro to support the DRC government in conserving and managing its forests and biodiversity, and a portion of these funds are specifically earmarked for the conservation of Virunga National Park. IUCN is also the Advisory Body on nature to the World Heritage Committee, the decision-making body of the World Heritage Convention, and is gravely concerned that oil exploration and exploitation within the park is likely to have significant and potentially irreversible adverse effects on its exceptional species and habitats.

We were asked to lobby European Parliament and other stakeholders to put pressure on the Government of DRC to revoke the concessions and to urge the companies to wait for the findings of the Strategic Assessment. Contact has been made with the European Parliament Environment Committee, the European Parliament intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, the Council of Europe Bern Convention and the European Commission DG DEVCO. We’re working closely with our Regional Office in Eastern and Southern Africa, with the IUCN World Heritage Unit, and with the lobbyists in the IUCN National Committee for the Netherlands.

The Parliament has now written to the Commissioner for Development, and parliamentary questions will be asked to explain what action will be taken. Let’s hope that these combined efforts will stop the threat to the Virunga World Heritage Area.

Read more about the 'Land of the Mountain Gorilla'.