UNESCO World Heritage Centre has assured concerned Malawian civil society that is following up with the Government of Malawi over oil exploration in Lake Malawi National Park.
Lake Malawi National Park, one of Malawi’s two World Heritage Sites, was awarded World Heritage status in 1984 for its outstanding universal value and is home to over 1000 endemic cichlid fish. It covers a very small area of lake, with requests to expand the park, and more research required for a deeper understanding of the biodiversity.
The lake is also the country’s prized tourist attraction and valuable for many people — across Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania — who depend on it for a source livelihood, transport, and water, although there are no recent studies to show just how significant the lake is and could be for Malawi’s economy and welfare. Malawi and Tanzania are also currently in dispute as Tanzania is demanding that the border be moved to be equidistant between the two countries, cutting across the north of the lake.
Given the Government’s issuance of exploration licences for petroleum (three of the six cover the lake), Malawi’s Natural Resources Justice Network (NRJN) and affiliated Publish What You Pay (PWYP) chapter sent a letter, expressing concerns over the developments, to the Director of the World Heritage Centre, Dr Mechtild Rössler, and Director of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Heritage Programme, Mr Tim Badman, in early November. The letter signed by 21 organisations reads,
We are deeply concerned with the environmental health and integrity of our iconic Lake Malawi not only as an irreplaceable, globally significant site for biodiversity, but also as a critical source of livelihoods for many Malawians and citizens of neighbouring Mozambique and Tanzania. And these are worrying times because the property faces many potential threats, not least of which is oil exploration. Although the government has discussed the potential for oil exploration and production for many years, it has not officially shared its position concerning the status of oil exploration and the property with parliament, civil society or the general populace, nor as far as we know with the World Heritage Committee.
NRJN and PWYP called on UNESCO to ‘take immediate action to protect the property before exploration proceeds further’ including asking the Committee to request the Government of Malawi to provide information to the public on the oil exploration licenses and agreements, to engage and respond to questions asked by interested stakeholders and to prohibit any exploration in the property area and buffer zone.
In response, UNESCO has written to the Government of Malawi to recall the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s previous decisions. Their position includes requesting government to cancel the licences that overlap with the park, create a buffer zone, and commit to conducting publicly inclusive Environmental Impact Assessments in and outside the park area in line with IUCN guidelines. The government has also been reminded of its obligation to submit a progress report by February 2017 in relation to the reactive monitoring mission UNESCO conducted in 2014. Last December, the government was expected to submit a report, but instead responded with a three-page letter asking more time.
Rössler, Director of the World Heritage Centre, also noted in the letter (see below, open images in a new tab to enlarge) that a number of companies and financial institutions have committed to not extract solid minerals or oil and gas from World Heritage Sites. In Malawi, the government can give the go ahead to allow mining to take place in areas designated as national and wildlife parks and in forests.
It is not the first time these networks have raised concerns about the lack of government transparency and consultation on oil and gas exploration in Malawi, issuing press releases in February and June this year, and calling for contract disclosure and the inclusion of oil and gas in Malawi’s first Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative report expected in April 2017.
Nevertheless, the organisations ‘remain committed to working with Government to ensure the natural resources make a difference in the lives of citizens of Malawi’, their press statement concludes.