On 24 March 2011, the State Party submitted a report on the state of conservation with information on progress in implementing corrective measures. From 11 to 21 December 2010, a joint World Heritage Centre /IUCN mission visited the property, as requested by the World Heritage Committee at its 34th session (Brasilia, 2010). The mission report is available online at the following Internet address: http:/whc.unesco.org/en/sessions/35COM.
The mission noted that since the reactive monitoring missions of 2006 and 2007, security problems continue to hamper the implementation of corrective measures. Especially since 2008 when the Virunga National Park (ViNP) was faced with a sharp rise in insecurity following the occupation of a significant portion of the property by the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Although the situation improved in 2009, to date several armed groups continue to operate in the Park. They illegally exploit natural resources and spread terror among the villagers and travelers on main roads through the Park. This is aggravated by the presence of several thousand undisciplined members of the FARDC based permanently in the Park, and who are often involved in large-scale poaching. The World Heritage Centre notes that since the December 2010 mission, the security situation again seems to have worsened following several attacks by Rwandan rebels, which have again resulted in loss of life amongst the guards.
The mission confirmed that the threats identified in previous missions are still valid, including the massive and illegal invasions in many places in the Park, illegal fishing on the lake, the carbonization of the forest of the volcanic sector for the commercialization of charcoal, and the poaching of the large mammals of the savannas. The mission noted that the encroachments now cover an estimated area of 31,146 hectares, or 3.8% of the total area of the Park. The mission also noted that these invasions were encouraged by some local officials during the war and continue to be so today by some local politicians.
In addition, the mission highlighted a significant new threat to be added to those identified by the 2006 and 2007 missions, notably the granting of a permit for petroleum exploitation.
a) Committee to Save Virunga
Although the Committee to Save Virunga is no longer functional, the mission stressed that the overall quality of collaboration among the stakeholders has improved considerably to the benefit of better protection of the Park, as demonstrated by the “ViNP Stabilisation Plan” (see b).
b) Reduction in the number of military personnel inside the ViNP
The mission felt that significant progress had been achieved with the implementation in August 2010 of the “ViNP Stabilisation Plan, Phase 1, Central Sector”. This plan enabled the evacuation of around 5000 military personnel based in the central sector of the Park, and the composition of a mixed unit of guards and soldiers under the command of the managing authority. This mechanism should improve the security of the area and significantly reduce cases of poaching by the military. Unfortunately, the World Heritage Centre was informed that following the mission, on 24 January 2011, a Park vehicle was attacked with rocket launchers at Mabenga by armed bandits, probably Rwandan rebels; 3 guards and 5 soldiers were killed.
c) Closure of the Nyaleke reunification and training camp
The mission found that this camp is still operational, although the number of people present has decreased from 5000 to 1000 individuals.
d) Continue the peaceful evacuation of illegal occupants
From 2008 to 2009, the CNDP rebellion prevented the Park authorities to continue its evacuation of illegal occupants. However some progress was made on the western side with the evacuation of the illegal village of Muramba in August 2010 and of the Ndwali Sector at the end of December 2010. Through these actions, approximately 30% of the western part of the Park was recovered. Unfortunately, steps to recuperate Lubilya in 2010 were halted following an enquiry requested by the Ministry of the Environment. The situation also remains blocked at Kirolirwe. These blockages are used by the squatters elsewhere in the park as a pretext for refusing to leave.
The mission was informed that the evacuation process of squatters was made difficult because of interference from local politicians and humanitarian organizations. The Park authorities have thus opted for a monitored information strategy and the application of the law, before the integrity of the property is permanently compromised by the presence of illegal occupants and their exploitation of the Park’s resources.
e) Reinforce surveillance of the property
The various conflicts, between 2006 and 2008, had a negative impact on the surveillance effort, resulting in a decrease in the number of patrols and the area covered. However, the end of the CNDP rebellion, in January 2009, coincided with the launch of the project to support institutional reform of the ICCN, financed by the European Union. This helped to significantly strengthen the management capacities of the property, notably by streamlining the number of personnel, the establishment of a professional system of administrative, financial and human resource management; the acquisition of major equipment (9 trucks, 9 pickups, 3 speed boats, an airplane, personal equipment for use in the bush, an efficient system of communication, computer equipment, etc.). In addition, a major training effort is underway, including high-level paramilitary training by specialists of the Belgian Special Forces. Many facilities at the stations of Mutsora and Rumangabo are being rehabilitated, and several patrol posts are also being rehabilitated / reconstructed.
The mission feels that these different improvements have enabled the management authority to implement, more efficiently and effectively, the surveillance and law enforcement actions. Unfortunately there is no data on the surveillance efforts (number and geographical distribution of patrols) for the years 2009 and 2010.
f) Strengthen co operation between the management authority of the Park (ICCN) and its partners
The General Management Plan (GMP) was developed in early 2010 in consultation with all partners of the Park. It sets the strategic framework for intervention and allows the management to ensure the cohesion of interventions and partners. The General Management Plan is awaiting formal approval by the General Directorate of the managing authority. The objective of the plan and the strategic areas of intervention of the various management programmes reflect the intention of preserving the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. The planning of all these conservation activities continues in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee of the Site (CoCoSi). The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend to the State Party to formally submit this document, once it is approved.
g) Develop a strategy of profit sharing with the local communities
A system of sharing revenue from tourism has been established; it provides that 30% of revenues will be earmarked for the local communities. Mobilizing these resources for local communities is part of the implementation of development plans for neighbouring communities. Currently the achievements pertain mainly to social infrastructures.
h) Stop the production of charcoal in the property and promote alternative energy sources
The mission was informed that the illegal production of charcoal in the eastern and north-eastern part of the Nyragongo volcano, and in front of Rumangabo, was virtually halted, but that this activity continued to the west of Nyragongo, probably due to the migration of the charcoal producers to this part of the Park. A major effort is devoted to the development of alternatives to the use of charcoal produced illegally in the Park, through the manufacture of briquettes made from paper and vegetable matter. Community reforestations can serve as an alternative source to charcoal, and to the development and dissemination of improved equipment.
i) Strengthen the role of the United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), to restore security in the property and its periphery
The mission noted that the Park continues to maintain permanent contact with the MONUSCO, but considers that it provides very little direct support to the Park.
j) Strengthen the communication and awareness-raising activities targeted at the authorities and local populations
The Park devotes considerable efforts to communication activities targeted at the competent authorities. The mission noted if, all-in-all, the message of the importance of maintaining the integrity of the property is understood by most leaders, a minority of local politicians continue to encourage people to illegally occupy the Park.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that despite the very difficult conditions, significant efforts have been made by the State, with the support of donors and conservation partners, to implement corrective measures. Despite significant advances in some areas, there remain serious challenges. The mission made proposals for updating the corrective measures that are included in the Draft Decision.
The new threat from petroleum exploration
The mission confirmed that several petroleum exploration blocks cover almost the entire Virunga National Park. As mentioned at the 34th session, a petroleum exploration permit was granted in June 2010 for Block V covering a significant portion of the property, and this despite the World Heritage Committee’s decision at its 33rd session which requested the State Party to exclude this concession from the property. The exploration permit was awarded to a consortium composed of Dominion Petroleum Congo, SOCO Exploration and Production, English company listed on the London stock exchange, and the Congolese Parastatal Hydrocarbons Company (COHYDRO). SOCO is the operator for the permit in question. The mission noted that Congolese law prohibits this type of exploitation in protected areas.
On 6 August 2010, the Director-General of UNESCO sent a letter to the President of the DRC expressing concern about the granting of the permit and reiterating that petroleum exploration is not permitted within the property. The Director-General of IUCN also sent a letter to the President of the DRC and to the Directorate of SOCO and Dominion Petroleum on 10 February 2011 on the same subject. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recall the firm stance of the World Heritage Committee against petroleum exploration and exploitation in World Heritage properties. The issue of petroleum exploration was also discussed during the high-level meeting in Kinshasa (see also the report on the general state of conservation of the sites in the DRC). In the Kinshasa Declaration, the Prime Minister committed the Government to respect the national laws as well as the provisions of the Convention. On 14 March 2011, the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism announced the Government’s decision to suspend petroleum exploration in the property, following the commitments made in the Declaration of Kinshasa, and pending the Strategic Environmental Assessment.
Development of the Desired state of conservation for the removal of the property from the List of World Heritage in Danger
In consultation with the site managers, the mission elaborated a proposal for the Desired state of conservation of the site, with benchmarks for a withdrawal from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The main elements of the Desired state of conservation are: the evacuation of all illegal occupations from the western side of the property, halt to the activity of carbonisation in the forests of the southern sector, maintaining forest cover, control of the regulated fishing activities, the gradual return of large fauna to the savannas and the maintenance of viable populations of other flagship species, notably the mountain gorilla.
Given the magnitude of threats to the integrity of the property, the mission believes it will take at least 5 to 10 years to restore the property’s Outstanding Universal Value. The mission has proposed a series of benchmarks over a 5-year period to enable the demonstration of progressive improvement of the situation. A detailed description is included in the mission report.