PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, June 17, 2013 (ENS) – The international body that oversees World Heritage Sites today requested the cancellation of oil exploration permits in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Some of the permits are held by international petroleum conglomerates, including UK-based Soco International PLC and French oil giant Total SA.

Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and one of the continent’s first World Heritage Sites. It was inscribed in 1979 in recognition of its extraordinary landscapes, and because it is inhabited by more species than any other place in the continent.

gorilla

Young gorilla in Virunga National Park, DRC (Photo by Nick Leonard)

The World Heritage Committee, a rotating group of 21 countries that manages the UNESCO World Heritage List, said it is deeply concerned that Virunga could be degazetted or that laws could be changed so that oil concessions covering 85 percent of the park’s territory could be exploited.

Conservation organizations warn that oil exploration could cause the site to lose its World Heritage status and would put in peril local livelihoods and rare species.

Total last month promised to stay out of the park’s current boundaries, but remains active just outside its borders.

The global conservation organization WWF said today, “Soco International PLC has not made a commitment to respect the integrity of the park.”

But in a statement on its website, Soco clarified its position. “Block V encompasses an area of the Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site, which includes part of Lake Edward. SOCO’s area of interest is the lowland savannah area around Lake Edward and the lake itself.”

“It is emphasised that Block V is not located within the mountainous Mikeno Sector, home to the famous Mountain Gorillas. This has been subject to much inaccurate media speculation. Furthermore, SOCO has stated it will never seek to have operations in the Mountain Gorilla habitat, the Virunga Volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest,” the company said.

“Virunga National Park is one of the last places on Earth you should go looking for oil,” said René Ngongo, mining and extractives policy advisor at WWF-DRC.

“The park is of global conservation importance and is vital for the livelihoods of many people living around it,” said Ngongo. “We are urging alternative development models that are sustainable for the long term – development that provides real benefits to local communities and does not put endangered species at risk.”

“The World Heritage Committee has made it clear today that these precious places are no-go areas for damaging extractive activities,” said Christof Schenck, CEO of Frankfurt Zoological Society. “Oil exploration could destroy Virunga forever and must not go forward.”

The World Heritage Committee also turned its attention to the responsibilities member countries have as parties to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

Governments were urged in a decision “to do their utmost to ensure that the mining or petroleum companies established on their territories do not damage World Heritage properties.”

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meeting, which started Sunday in Phnom Penh, will consider a total of 34 natural and cultural areas for World Heritage status.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, the advisory body on natural World Heritage, recommends five new sites for inscription on the list of Earth’s most outstanding places.

These are:
* – the Namib Sand Sea, pristine dunes at the heart of the coastal Namib Desert of western southern Africa

* – Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, the largest active volcano in Europe and the Mediterranean area, almost untouched by human activities

* – the Tajik National Park of Tajikistan, geologically outstanding are with the highest peaks of the Central Asian region, first nominated in 2006

* – El Pinacate and Grando Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in the Sonoran Desert of northwest Mexico, east of the Gulf of California, hosts over 540 species of plants, 40 mammal species and 200 bird species, first nominated in 2004

* – Xinjiang Tianshan in China, greatest concentration of mountain glaciers in the arid area of Eurasia, these mountains have more than half the world’s population of 2,500 snow leopards, the only natural forests of the ancient tree species Picea schrenkiana, ancient wild fruit forests, red Tertiary canyon landscape, wetlands, and swan breeding lakes, first nominated in 2010

Tianshan Mountains

Tianshan Mountains (Mountains of Heaven) are in western Xinjiang Province, China (Photo by Bruce in Beijing)

The Committee also will review the state of existing World Heritage sites, including some that could be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Particular attention will be paid to the World Heritage sites of Mali that were severely damaged during the occupation of the northern part of the country last year and earlier this year, and to the sites of the Syrian Arab Republic that are also prey to damage from strife, the Committee said in a statement.

IUCN will recommend three natural World Heritage sites to be put on the Danger List. Virgin Komi Forests in Russia, Lake Turkana in Kenya and East Rennell in the Solomon Islands all face serious threats to their Outstanding Universal Value.

The first two sites have been kept off the Danger List for the last two years, despite IUCN’s expert reports and recommendations.

Today, the Committee decided to remove Iran’s World Heritage site of Bam and its Cultural Landscape from the List of World Heritage in Danger. Bam was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004, shortly after it was struck by a major earthquake and simultaneously placed on the List of Heritage in Danger.

The Committee today said that remains of the desert citadel, which reached its apogee from the 7th to 11th centuries, has been “sufficiently stabilized and its management was sound enough for the site to be declared safe.”

“The World Heritage Convention conveys the highest expectations for the protection of our common cultural and natural heritage. We are committed to working with States Parties and all stakeholders to maintain the integrity of the Convention and strengthen its role as a flagship for best practice in global conservation,” says IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre.

The 21 countries with representatives on this year’s World Heritage Committee are: Algeria, Cambodia, Colombia, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Switzerland, Thailand, United Arab Emirates

In attendance at this session of the World Heritage Committee are roughly 1,400 delegates from 121 countries, and a press corps of more than 550 from 17 countries.

The World Heritage List includes 962 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.

These include 745 cultural sites, 188 natural sites and 29 mixed sites in 157 countries. As of September 2012, 190 States Parties have ratified the World Heritage Convention.

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