Activists oppose oil drilling around Congo protected area

By Rodney Muhumuza, Associated Press

Conservation groups want Uganda's government to end plans to drill for oil in a lake on Uganda's western border with Congo, saying oil exploration there threatens Africa's oldest national park.

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Conservation groups want Uganda's government to end plans to drill for oil in a lake on Uganda's western border with Congo, saying oil exploration there threatens Africa's oldest national park.

All six new oil licenses being offered by Uganda's government are for exploration in protected areas, including one that borders Congo's Virunga National Park.

Oil activity in the Lake Edward basin may have a devastating impact on Virunga, more than 60 conservation and tourism groups, including Global Witness and the Zoological Society of London, said Thursday.

Lake Edward, which lies across Uganda's border with Congo, "is at the heart of Virunga's precious ecosystem," the groups said in a statement, adding that oil exploration there will also be harmful to Uganda's growing tourism sector.

"Oil activity in one part of the lake will affect all of it - the wildlife who call the lake home aren't aware of these national borders," said George Boden, a campaigner with Global Witness. "There are also over 200,000 people who are dependent on Lake Edward for food. UNESCO and the governments of Uganda and Congo need to act urgently to stop oil exploration in the entire lake for good."

The Ugandan government said the licensing of new oil blocks would proceed next week despite the criticism.

"Their thinking is unjustified. What is important is to minimize the likely danger that may be caused to an ecosystem," said Yusuf Bukenya Matovu, a spokesman for Uganda's Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development.

In 2014, British oil company Soco International carried out seismic testing for oil on the Congolese side of Lake Edward, in Virunga, prompting an international outcry, following which Soco committed to no further involvement in its oil block in Virunga.

Uganda, where oil was first discovered in the Albertine Graben in 2006, hopes to begin crude production by 2020.

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