WWF today has issued a warning to SOCO International investors, many of whom are based in the UK, that the company’s exploration plans in Virunga National Park could have catastrophic impacts on local livelihoods and the environment. The FTSE 250-listed oil exploration giant will hold its Annual General Meeting tomorrow in London.
SOCO has recently announced plans to explore for oil in and around Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo, a World Heritage Site and home to the world-famous mountain gorillas. SOCO says its exploration activities will include a portion Lake Edward, where 30,000 local fishermen make their livelihoods.
“The United Nations has recognized that Virunga National Park is like no other place in the world and that oil exploration is incompatible with World Heritage status,” said Marc Languy, Leader of WWF’s Green Heart of Africa Initiative. “Responsible investors will have the opportunity tomorrow to tell SOCO that exploration in Virunga – or indeed any World Heritage Site – is inappropriate and should be abandoned.”
UNESCO, the agency responsible for the World Heritage Convention, has expressed repeated concerns over oil exploration in Virunga National Park and will be discussing the threat with governments at the World Heritage Committee’s annual meeting later this month.
Drew McVey, species programme manager at WWF-UK, said: “British businesses should be held accountable by the government for upholding their social and environmental responsibilities when operating both at home and abroad.”
Oil exploration within Virunga National Park could constitute a violation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, a set of recommendations governing responsible business conduct. As member of the OECD, the United Kingdom has made a binding commitment to implement OECD guidelines, which apply to all global operations of UK-based enterprises.
By entering Virunga National Park, SOCO could be found in breach of the OECD guidelines’ Concepts and Principles or Environment provisions as outlined in chapters 1 and 6.
The areas of Virunga National Park allocated as oil concessions cover around 85 per cent of its land, and the habitats of endangered chimpanzees, hippos, and forest elephants. The park is also home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, of which only 786 individuals remain. The gorillas are a major source of eco-tourism income in the region.
“This petrol exploration has been imposed on us without any former consultation,” community leader Bantu Lukambo said during a protest in the neighbouring town of Vitshumbi. “Many people in the area have incomes and live thanks the fish from Lake Edward and we fear that petrol will bring pollution and more conflict in our region.”
Community activists opposing SOCO’s activities in Virunga National Park have recently reported receiving death threats. The company has denied any involvement.
SOCO is operating in Block V of Virunga National Park along with partner Ophir Energy, another FTSE-250 company. The second concession holder is Total of France, operating in Block III in partnership with South African company SacOil.