When I think of natural places with Unesco World Heritage status, I think of the world's most iconic land and seascapes: the Great Barrier Reef, a haven for 1,500 species of fish and 411 types of coral bursting with colour; the vast plains of the Serengeti with its mass groups of migrating herds.
Closer to home we have the breath-taking Jurassic coast of Dorset and east Devon and the dramatic sight of the Giant's Causeway in Antrim. These are places that have commanded awe and inspiration in equal measure for their natural beauty and their unique geological features. And I imagine most people would presume these treasures have absolute protection from our seemingly unquenchable thirst for natural resources but sadly, this is not the case.
The Australian Barrier Reef faces threats from port, rail and mining developments. Being globally renowned as a natural wonder and popular tourist destination doesn't seem to make a place off-limits, particularly if there are natural resources to be tapped. The same goes for a lesser-known place located along the most eastern boundary of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). That place is Virunga National Park - a real jewel in Africa's crown, named in honour of its stunning volcanoes.
Virunga is the continent's oldest national park, with more mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area in Africa. As well as being the home to such a diverse range of wildlife, Virunga's natural systems sustain local communities - providing food and fresh water, energy and raw materials, plus employment opportunities, such as fishing and ecotourism. As a World Heritage Site, the park is also known and valued by millions of people globally, despite the fact that they may never even visit the site. But this value is being jeopardised by the impending threat of oil extraction in a place that was once, rightly, considered 'off-limits'.
Few will have heard of Soco International plc, a UK-based oil company, but plans are underway to begin the process of oil exploration to feed continued global consumption. If they do strike it lucky, profits will accrue for the company and the national government but I believe little from this 'black gold' rush will make it through to the local communities or secure the future of the critically endangered mountain gorilla and other wildlife that occupy its rugged terrain.
The ripple effect from oil extraction is well documented. Increased pressure is placed upon an area because greater numbers of people misguidedly gravitate there in the hope of getting work. When this doesn't happen they rely on natural resources for survival. Furthermore, as research has found, any oil spills, pipeline leaks or gas flaring could contaminate the air, water and soil in the area with toxins. Studies of other oil producing regions have found that oil can cause health problems and fuel conflict.
We passionately believe that this is the line in the sand that shouldn't be crossed. Around the world around 25% of these natural World Heritage Sites are under threat. Something has to be done to redress the balance and for us, we draw the line at Virunga National Park.
To launch our campaign to save Virunga we have published an independent report which calculates the potential value that the park could be worth each year, without a single drop of oil ever being taken out of the ground. By developing eco-tourism, hydro-power and the region's fishing industry, collectively worth $350million per year, not only would there be a valuable and sustainable income for the people who rely on the park today, but there would also be around 45,000 jobs created. In addition, people around the world could derive an immense value from simply knowing that the park is well managed and that its biodiversity is safe for future generations (estimated in the report at $700million per year).
A new tourist camp was opened in 2010 and during this period of stability the park generated over $1million in revenue. Thirty per cent of this was channelled back into the local community, the highest proportion in Africa. This had to be put on hold due to regional tension and security concerns, but just look over the border into Rwanda - a once war-torn country - and you'll now find that tourism accounts for the third highest source of foreign currency revenue in the country. We believe that, in the longer term, this could be replicated in Virunga.
In addition to Unesco, the UK government is also concerned and has released a statement to urge any company involved in the region to respect the international conventions relating to the National Park. Oil giant Total have committed not to prospect for oil within the parks current boundaries.
There is still a choice and we want Soco, other oil companies and the DRC government to come to the right decision. Leave the oil in the ground and try our roadmap to a more sustainable future for the region, its people and wildlife before we have yet another oil-induced environmental disaster on our hands.