British actor Anna Friel has said she is still “completely in shock” at the unexpected decision two weeks ago of British oil and gas company SOCO to pull out of exploration plans in Africa’s oldest national park — something she has been campaigning for on behalf of the wildlife charity WWF.
Yet while delighted at the decision, she warned that there still needed to be great vigilance over what happens next in the park, which is in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
She vowed to step up her personal efforts as a conservation campaigner, saying: “It’s still not safe and we really can’t rest on our laurels.”
In what is one of the greatest successes for any conservationist for years, last-minute mediation between WWF and SOCO led to a joint statement being issued. The announcement that SOCO would no longer seek to explore the park came as Friel was planning a demonstration in central London’s Trafalgar Square against any drilling in the area, home to the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world.
It marked the end of what had become a personal issue between the actor from Yorkshire, England, and the oil company, which had openly attacked her for making a film about the Virunga National Park from over the border in Rwanda.
“It was ridiculous,” the award-winning stage and film actor said. “I went out there to make a film with Stephen Poliakoff about the park and the threat posed to it, but because of violence in the Congo we couldn’t cross the border, so we filmed in Rwanda with the park behind me. And I quite clearly say that in the film. To start attacking me was just an attempt to get away from the point.”
Friel, who went to Virunga initially to see the gorillas, along with her then eight-year-old daughter Gracie, ended up becoming the public face of the WWF campaign after hearing about the danger posed to the area.
“I suppose it was quite a political thing to do, but once I had seen the gorillas, and got into things a little deeper, and realized just how serious the situation facing them was, then it was the only thing to do. My involvement in what was a wider campaign was minor, compared to the people who are devoting their lives to this cause, but I’m proud to have been part of it,” she said.
Virunga was designated a World Heritage site in 1979, but since then has become one of the world’s most volatile regions. The park has been at the heart of intense fighting between armies and militias for more than 20 years and is home to tens of thousands of people who fled the genocide in Rwanda. Many park rangers have been killed, often by poachers and last month Virunga chief warden Emmanuel de Merode was shot and seriously wounded.
The joint statement with WWF and SOCO read: “SOCO has agreed with WWF to commit not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its world heritage status.”
“We will complete our existing operational program, including completing the seismic survey on Lake Edward, which is due to conclude shortly... The conclusion of this phase of work will give the DRC government vital information it will need in deciding how to proceed in Virunga National Park,” it added.
WWF experts believe if managed sustainably, Virunga could be the source of 45,000 jobs through eco-tourism, hydroenergy and fishing. Thousands already rely on the park and its bordering lake for food and water, and past examples of oil exploration in Africa by multinational companies have left whole swathes of land ruined and polluted.