Following IUCN’s advice, the World Heritage Committee has sent a strong message to oil and gas and other extractive industries not to operate in World Heritage sites. The message came during discussions about World Heritage sites in Danger, including Africa’s iconic Virunga National Park, at the annual World Heritage Committee meeting taking place in Doha, Qatar.
Four days before the meeting began, British oil company SOCO announced its intention to stay clear of all World Heritage sites and stop any exploratory activities in Virunga National Park within 30 days, “unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”
Two days ago, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and IUCN provided a clear response: no extractive company anywhere in the world should attempt to carry out exploration or extraction activities in World Heritage sites.
“There is consensus that extractive industries are not compatible with World Heritage status,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, UNESCO’s advisory body on natural World Heritage. “Virunga has been danger-listed for 20 years but it has not lost its outstanding values and international efforts are still focused on its conservation.”
Deep concerns were recently expressed over oil concessions in Virunga granted to Total and SOCO. Fortunately, both companies have now committed to the ‘no-go’ principle that applies to World Heritage sites. However concerns were raised that Virunga’s boundaries could still be modified if oil resources are found.
“World Heritage sites should not be modified for the sake of oil exploitation,” says Cyril Kormos, Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. “After the World Heritage Committee’s numerous calls to stop extractive operations in Virunga National Park, we are pleased to see SOCO acknowledging its responsibility. This is definitely a step in the right direction.”
Virunga National Park has the highest concentration of biodiversity on the entire African continent. Extending from volcanoes to semi-arid savanna, its natural resources rely on the fresh water provided by Lake Edward, a large part of which is covered by SOCO’s prospective exploration. The lake is also critical for the livelihoods of over 50,000 families, who largely rely on fishing.
Africa’s oldest national park has faced numerous threats over the years, including armed conflict, poaching and illegal charcoal production. In the last four years alone, 16 park rangers were killed in action. Despite all this, Virunga has been able to maintain its values thanks to emergency measures and extraordinary conservation efforts by the park’s management.
Committee discussions on World Heritage sites affected by threats or serious conservation issues conclude today in Doha, Qatar.
For more information:
Célia Zwahlen, IUCN World Heritage Programme Communications