In recent years, international campaigns have highlighted the role that "conflict minerals" such as coltan, used in many electronic devices, have played in perpetuating violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighbors, but there's a potentially even more dangerous conflict brewing now that Congo is apparently sitting on an awful lot of oil.
How much? The region's oil fields may contain as much as 6 billion barrels -- the area's largest oil discovery in decades and worth about 28 times Congo's entire GDP at current prices. British oil firm Soco secured permission from Congo's government this year to survey the find inside Virunga National Park, near Congo's border with Uganda. If significant deposits are confirmed, the country's hydrocarbons minister says, Congo could amend its laws to allow drilling there, even though Virunga is Africa's oldest national park and a haven for rare mountain gorillas.
Beyond the environmental consequences, the oil could become a geopolitical flash point. The area where the oil is thought to lie overlaps with the 23,000-square-mile North Kivu province, site of a years-long conflict between the government and Tutsi rebel groups that forced hundreds of thousands to flee over the past decade and where renewed violence broke out again this year. Making matters still more complicated are outstanding border-demarcation issues between Congo and Uganda left over from a military clash between the two sides in 2007. (Uganda is also looking to make an oil play, having recently upped its estimated reserves to 3.5 billion barrels.) On the other side of Congo, the country has yet to resolve a dispute with Angola over natural gas deposits off its west coast.
Even with only one oil company producing so far, oil is already Kinshasa's main source of revenue, and as the International Crisis Group noted this year, Congo's oil industry has long been defined by corruption and waste. The organization worries that any new oil finds "could redefine the country's geopolitics" by encouraging secessionist groups and reigniting border disputes. In a volatile region long cursed by its bountiful resources, the discovery of black gold seems unlikely to improve the situation.
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