In the heart of Africa, the first area to be protected in the continent is now at risk. The biodiversity-rich Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is on the verge of being overrun by oil drilling. This ancient reserve, home to over 3,000 animal species, including rare mountain gorillas, could be turned into a barren land of oil fields.
In recent years, the Congolese government has granted concessions to various multinationals to carry out the necessary explorations and start exploiting potential oil resources. The agreements have not spared the park: 85% of its surface area (covering almost 800,000 hectares) has been allocated for these oil explorations.
The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium and in 1979 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its green valleys and dramatic volcanoes shelter okapi, elephant, hippopotamus and a quarter of the world’s surviving mountain gorilla population.
In May, the French company Total committed to respecting the park’s boundaries, but British company Soco could soon assert its rights inside the protected area, seriously threatening the delicate balance of the ecosystem.
The WWF has denounced the situation, launching a campaign and petition. The environmental charity also commissioned an independent study, The Economic Value of Virunga National Park, to show the park’s economic potential. According to the report, the development of sustainable activities like eco-tourism and artisanal fishing could generate an annual revenue of over a billion dollars as well as up to 45,000 jobs, all without harming the environment.
The Slow Food network is present in the Democratic Republic of Congo with five active convivia, one of which is based near the protected area. “We’re very worried about the danger threatening the park and we would like to be able to do something,” said the leader of the Slow Food Butembo convivium, Samson Kakule Mulengya. “Biodiversity is essential to guaranteeing our future and with the convivium we are doing everything possible to promote its protection. Our activities only started a year ago, but we already have several initiatives, including participating in the Thousand Gardens in Africa project.”
“The well-being of the local communities cannot be trampled in the name of immediate profit for big foreign companies,” said Piero Sardo, the president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. “In a country already tormented for years by a terrible war, Virunga Park must absolutely be protected. We must encourage a careful and shared management of the resources, based on the fundamental principle of safeguarding the environment.”
To promote this objective, Slow Food is carrying out a number of activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the Thousand Gardens in Africa project. Around 20 community food gardens have already been created in the country; in each of them, the cultivation of traditional fruit and vegetable varieties serves as a kind of small, symbolic bulwark, affirming the value of food sovereignty for every community.
Translation: Carla Ranicki