The fact that part of the landscape where the mountain gorillas live in Uganda and neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is sitting on oil has led to the questions of whether the gorillas should be dispersed in order to extract the oil or should the oil and the gorillas just be alone. The two countries do not agree on this.
"We neither have gold nor diamonds, but we have gorillas," says Amos Agaba, a tour guide at Buhoma in Uganda's Kanungu District. "They have brought dollars to our village. Tourists buy different products from the local residents and we, too, earn a living from guiding."
This is part of the impact of gorilla tourism, currently valued at an estimated 10 million US dollars a year.
Agaba, as well as the local people, who are making a living from gorilla tourism, say three decades ago, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was a worthless bush. But, Bwindi has turned into a lifeline for the local communities, as well as the endangered mountain gorillas, estimated to number around 800 globally.
The Ugandan Government stopped illegal mining of gold, logging and encroachment which were pushing Bwindi to its knees. Today, the money from gorilla tourism is making up for the revenue from the destructive use of Bwindi.
While the government hs taken a step in favour of conservation, the discovery of oil in parts of Lake Edward and Queen Elizabeth, is beginning to bite the environment. The area, referred to as Ngaji, is part of the Greater Virunga that covers parts of Bwindi, as well as the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Rwanda as well as the DRC.
The part of Queen Elizabeth National Park is part of the only remaining migratory corridor between Uganda and DRC. Lake Edward is at the heart of a chain of lakes, including Lake George and Lake Albert.
The three lakes are connected by Kazinga Channel between Lake George and Lake Edward and River Semliki links Edward to Albert. This is part of the catchment for the River Nile which flows through Lake Albert on its way from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea.
This is, sadly, the area where oil exploration is now being proposed. Exploitation is set to beat conservation. And environmentalists are sad. They argue, among other reasons, that the risk of an oil spill alone is enough danger to the water in the Nile, which will be contaminated to cause destruction of habitats for many migratory species, including fish and birds.
The wildlife tourism in the Albertine Rift, which is one of the most important ecological regions globally, will be no more.
It is not only gorillas that are threatened by oil exploration, but other animals, such as elephants.
As the Ugandan Government puts final touches to license companies for exploring oil around parts of Queen Elizabeth and Lake Edward, activists, led by Onesmus Mugyenyi, the deputy executive director at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), are saying: "No way".
Mugyenyi, under a coalition of Civil Society Organization on Oil in Uganda, together with non-governmental organizations in DRC, have petitioned the governments sharing the Virunga to leave the oil in the ground.
However, government officials argue that this is not the first time that oil exploration is taking place in an ecologically sensitive area. They insist that restoration done in Murchison Falls National Park shows that mining of oil could co-exist with wildlife.
Kabagambe Kaliisa, the out-going permanent secretary in the of the energy ministry, insists that oil activities can be done in a sustainable manner.
"As long as we ensure that oil activities do not pollute the environment," he says. "The entire Albertine Graben is an area of high environmental concern, with Murchison Falls National Park, Kabwoya wildlife reserves and others. Those organisations should stop politicking and understand that exploration work can go on without damaging the environment."
Giraffes have been seen grazing in a place that has been restored after the oil exploration in the northern part of Murchison Falls National Park
A decade ago, Uganda discovered commercial quantities of oil. With only 40 per cent of the Albertine Rift (the western arm of the African Rift Valley) explored, Uganda's oil assets are estimated at 6.5 billion barrels and the numbers are likely to increase with further licensing for exploration.
However, across the border, DRC has opted to leave the oil and preserve the Virunga landscape. The activists, together with the international community, have fought to keep Virunga intact. Consequently, a British company, known as SOCO, has withdrawn interest in undertaking exploration activities in the part of Virunga in DRC.
The same pressure could be mounting on the Ugandan government. In the recently concluded round of licensing by the Ugandan Government, private companies declined to take interest in oil exploration activities in the Ngaji block, which is located in the park.
The Virunga is a complex ecological system with chains of tropical rainforests punctuated with lakes, such as Edward; savanna plains and it is also a trans-boundary park. This means that the impacts in DRC are likely to spill over into Uganda and the reverse is true.
"Uganda is a sovereign State, but it will have to ensure that the impacts do not spill over to DR Congo," Mugyenyi said, advising that Uganda and DR Congo should get a common stand on oil.
In 1925, the Virunga landscape in DRC was declared a national park and is currently Africa's oldest park. In 2008, Virunga became a UNESCO World heritage site.
UNESCO has written to the Government of Uganda stating that the allocation of Ngaji oil block violates Uganda's obligations under article six of the World Heritage Convention. It states that signatories to the convention must not undertake actions that may damage heritage sites either in their own territory or in the territory of other signatories to the convention.
The European Union (EU) parliament also passed a resolution which was adopted in December last year, calling for measures to protect Virunga, a Unesco world heritage site.
The statement of the resolution said the area has become one of the most dangerous places in the world when it comes to wildlife conservation. The European Parliament encouraged DRC to develop sustainable energy and economic alternatives to extractive industries.
"Sustainable management of Virunga's land, water and wildlife will have direct and indirect economic benefits for communities that rely heavily on the park's natural resources," the resolution stated.
According to the 2013 World Wide Fund for Nature report, mountain gorilla tourism alone in the three countries (Uganda, DRC and Rwanda) could generate 30 million USD a year and create employment for thousands of people.
"I have seen prosperity at Buhoma because of eco-tourism," Agaba said. He added: "It has helped to put money in our pockets, yet the environment where the gorillas live has remained intact."
The Ugandan Government has spoken through officials like Kabagambe and the decision is to get oil out of the ground. Should Ugandans settle for both-oil and tourism?
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) want a moratorium on all oil activities in the wider Virunga area and have appealed to the international community to weigh in.
"We call on UNESCO and the governments of Uganda and the DRC to reach an agreement to prevent any oil exploration, extraction or related activities in the wider Virunga area," a statement authored by CSOs in Uganda, DRC and international conservation bodies, reads.
The organizations want all existing exploration licences in this area to be cancelled as well as plans to issue new ones.
The Virunga region includes Virunga and Queen Elizabeth national parks and the whole of Lake Edward.
They say the DRC should refrain from granting any new licence, or transfer of licences in Virunga National Park or seeking to re-draw its boundaries to allow oil activities in the area.
Last year, SOCO International carried out seismic testing on Lake Edward in Virunga National Park, but the company has not yet published the results of its exploration.
Following widespread local opposition and a international outcry, SOCO International committed to no further involvement in its oil block in Virunga and has since announced that it no longer owns the licence.
They also state that Virunga National Park, as a UNESCO world heritage site, has an outstanding universal value that includes a wide diversity of habitats as well as exceptional biodiversity, notably endemic species and rare; globally threatened species, such as the mountain gorilla.
An estimated 200,000 fishermen and local people depend on the lake for their livelihoods and a valuable source of protein.
Source: NAM NEWS NETWORK