KINSHASA The government of Democratic Republic of Congo has drafted a bill that could allow oil companies to drill inside its national parks, putting Kinshasa on a possible collision course with donors and conservationists.
The impoverished central African state is believed to have rich energy deposits, some of which may lie beneath Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to some of the world's last mountain gorillas.
Two oil companies, UK-based Soco International and French energy giant Total, hold exploration licenses that overlap with parts of the park - where their activities are currently restricted by law.
"There are international agreements that we must respect concerning exploitation within (Virunga) park, but we can't leave the population to live in poverty," Yves Mobanda Yogo, a member of parliament on the environmental sub-committee working on the code told Reuters in an interview.
The draft bill, seen by Reuters and due to be debated by the broader parliament as early as this month, would allow the government to provide an exemption to the ban on oil activities in national parks "for reasons of national interest."
It would also provide tax breaks for operators to try to attract investors into Congo, which has earned a reputation as one of the toughest places in the world to do business due to decades of political instability and lack of respect for contracts.
Congo produces a miniscule 26,000 barrels of oil per day and is keen to boost that by exploring offshore and along its frontier with Uganda, where reserves of 3.5 billion barrels have been identified.
The borderlands zone, including the dense forests and hills of Virunga, is home to numerous rebel groups left over from a bloody regional war in the 1990s that left millions dead.
Donors including the World Bank and the UK government have expressed their opposition to any encroachment into Virunga, however, because it is legally protected by its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Zach Abraham, the head of global campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund - an international wildlife advocacy group - said that Congo's government should not permit any energy exploration activity within Virunga.
"It is protected by both national and international law. No-go means no-go," he said.
Last year the government authorized Africa-focused Soco International to carry out aerial surveying inside Virunga, and the company has repeatedly said that work will not have any negative environmental impact to the biodiverse area.
Total, meanwhile, has said it will not operate in the park because of social and environmental concerns.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Keiron Henderson)