KARACHI, Pakistan -- Environmentalists have taken multinational oil giant Shell to court over its plans to build a pipeline for mineral and gas exploration in Pakistan's Kirthar National Park.
Located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Karachi in Sindh province, Kirthar is Pakistan's oldest and largest national park.
Its 740,000 acres are a haven for Urial sheep, ibex and chinkara gazelle. Jungle cats, desert cats, leopards and desert wolves prowl the park, which was established in 1974.
The park includes archaeological sites dating back to 3500 BC and is home to 20,000 herders who depend on its resources for their survival. The Kirthar watershed provides the people of Karachi and Hyderabad with water for drinking, agriculture and industry.
In July 1997, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government opened the park to prospectors, inviting British Premier Oil to search for an estimated three trillion cubic feet of gas believed trapped in the porous rock.
Premier Oil later formed a joint venture company with Shell Oil Group, now known as Shell-Premier.
Resistance from environmentalists kept the project dormant, and Sindh Wildlife Department turned down requests by Premier to conduct an environmental impact assessment.
In May 1999, Sindh's regional government and environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, agreed to form a committee to conduct an independent assessment of the park, with a view toward looking into the ecological and management concerns at Kirthar.
But later the same year, Pakistan's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources finally awarded Premier Oil, Lasmo Oil and Shell Exploration a licence to explore for oil and gas.
The concession, known as the Dumbar block, covers more than 90 percent of Kirthar National Park.
The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Pakistan's leading environmental group, has stated that any mining or exploration in the park is illegal according to Section 14 and 15 of the Sindh Wildlife Ordinance (Amendment) Act of 1993 -- an update of the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1972.
SDPI adds that mining or exploration would violate the country's international commitments to protect biodiversity made under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
More than 170 countries are parties to the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which promotes the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.
SDPI and other groups have called for an independent, participatory study to assess the state of the park with detailed studies on legal, socio-economic, environmental issues. They envision a management plan which would ensure protection of species and the ecosystem of the park area, rather than paving the way for oil and gas companies to prospect.
Last Wednesday, nine environmental organizations petitioned the Sindh High Court, stating that mineral and gas exploration inside the national park is illegal under the Sindh Wildlife
One of the local organizations, Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment (SCBE), called on "investors with money in Shell to ask this company how it can defend its actions."
"We have already seen the damage that Shell's activities can have on wildlife, such as at Dureji Wildlife Sanctuary," said SCBE spokesman Farhan Anwar.
"We find it quite outrageous that they are now planning to plunder one of our most precious national parks - in Kirthar - home to some of our most endangered species."
Since 1998, Shell has been involved in exploration in Dureji Wildlife Sanctuary in the Pakistan province of Baluchistan - an area important for Sindh ibex and rare mountain sheep.
Local environmentalists claim that access roads built for heavy machinery have damaged the delicate mountain environment and increased erosion while opening the area to poachers. They claim seismic testing has disturbed wildlife populations.
Friends of the Earth intends to launch a campaign against Shell in the UK.
"This scandalous project must not go ahead," said Craig Bennett, habitats campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
"We will be working with local campaigners in Pakistan to fight this project. We want the public, banks and pension funds to challenge Shell to stop putting profits before people and the planet.
"Shell claims that it cares about poor people and the environment, yet its massive profits are being used to open up and plunder some of the world's most precious and sensitive areas."
Bennett said Shell should invest more of its profits in renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.
"If it doesn't, then its claims to care about the planet and its people will be nothing but hot air."
In a Sunday Times story last August, Shell defended its work in Asia, saying environmental protests did not take account of "today's high standards of exploration and production."
A spokesman was responding to complaints about its plans for Kirthar and the Sunderbans area of Bangladesh, where Shell plans to survey the world's biggest tiger reserve after company geologists pinpointed it as one of the richest potential sources of oil and gas on earth.
Shell told the Sunday Times that it does not plan to exploit the central area of Sunderbans, which is home to 450 Bengal tigers, but confirmed that it intends to carry out aerial surveys and back them up with studies that will involve drilling test wells.
"Shell and its partners respect the Sunderbans and are committed to carrying out all the required environmental and social studies prior to commencing any operations," said the spokesman.
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