Save Virunga: Is Virunga Saved?

(c) SaveVirunga 2014

“Virunga National Park’s conservationists and activists are celebrating a victory today after British oil company SOCO International plc (SOCO) agreed to end its controversial operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But the devil is in the details and many believe the war against drilling for oil in Africa’s oldest national park has just begun.

In a joint statement with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), SOCO has committed “not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”

This means that if UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee elects to downgrade Virunga’s World Heritage Status and/or reduce the park’s size by changing the borders, then SOCO might re-open for business in the crucial and iconic wildlife area. Virunga’s future is on the agenda for discussion at next week’s World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar.

Is it really a victory?

Regardless, the oil company will still complete their existing seismic survey on Lake Edward this month. If results show oil is present in profitable quantities, this will inevitably provide ammunition for the DRC and industry to use in any effort to remove Virunga’s World Heritage listing. SOCO has consistently stated that no Block V drilling commitments have ever been made to the DRC and that their exploration phase would “give the DRC government vital information it will need in deciding how to proceed in Virunga.”

Roger Cagle, SOCO’s deputy chief executive, said that the DRC could apply to UNESCO to redraw the boundaries of the 3,000-square-mile park to exclude part of Lake Edward, where SOCO is exploring for oil. If the DRC wanted to benefit from its oil, it could even apply to UNESCO to remove Virunga from the list of World Heritage Sites.

Also, SOCO may choose not to operate in Virunga, but instead sell their Block V concession to another company. About half of SOCO’s Block V oil concession zone is outside Virunga – and the risks to people, peace and nature do not suddenly disappear at a park boundary.

Does SOCO finally admit that their intentions are to drill for oil, or sell the concession to another oil company? 

Oil exploration and extraction was resolutely opposed by local and international environmental groups. WWF filed a complaint against SOCO under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. More than 750,000 local people signed a petition against drilling in the park, 80% of which is covered by DRC oil concessions awarded to various companies. The British Government stridently criticized SOCO’s oil exploration within Virunga national park or any other World Heritage Site.

International campaigns such as WWF’s “Draw The Line”EcoInternet’s global petition and SaveVirunga, as well as the recent film documentary ‘Virunga’ produced by Orlando von Einsiedel added pressure on SOCO – as did high profile figures including Sir Richard Branson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Conservationists may have won a battle, but Virunga is still under siege. ”

Source: ACF

Is Virunga Saved?

REPOST May 2012

But the most important question remains. Who will be held accountable for pushing oil exploration in a World Heritage site, for ruining 40 years of conservation work and for threatening the stability of the whole Great Lakes region?

A wildcatter, a major oil company or the governments behind these companies?

Credits: Paul Lowry

Africa is emerging as a big oil and natural gas reserve. As a result lots of new companies have been making their entrance in the Great Lakes region.

As some investments analyst says: ”nothing goes up faster than when you announce a major [oil] find in some geopolitical backwater”[1]. That is precisely what happened with the discovery of oil, an estimated billion barrels, at Lake Albert, one of Great African Lakes – and now Lake Edward, between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This discovery attracted small and relatively unknown companies, like Soco International, Tullow Oil, Dominion Petroleum and others. The area is one of the most unstable and conflict prone zones in the word with a staggering 5.4 million death since 1998 in Eastern Congo[2], also home of the Virunga National park and refuge of the last mountain gorilla population.

But why are investors and companies attracted by political and economic instability in such deadly zones?  Why will a London stock exchange company drill and pump oil from a UNESCO protected World Heritage site?

Simple: from the moment that oil was discovered companies could make multi-billion gains. It is one in a hundred chance;  “these companies go from little-known penny stocks to multi-billion-dollar mid-majors”[3]. SOCO international with operations in West Africa and Vietnam owns 80% of the oil concession in Block V, containing 52% of the Virunga National park, and saw its revenues increase from $48.4 millions in 2010 to $234.2[4] millions in 2011.

This seems to be not uncommon business for oil companies and investors in this sector – the “smaller, nimble, hungrier companies are” the best they “can go into the less savory parts of the world and get things done” [5]. In other words the less known oil companies are, the more risks they can take and go into zones that other major oil companies such as TOTAL and ENI are ‘diplomatically‘ avoiding, for now…. As SOCO says, recognizing early opportunities and, having early access into regions and projects is one of their company strategies. The oil industry also calls this type of oil enterprises “ wildcatters”[6]; they like risky business and are at the forefront of oil discovery in places where nobody has gone before.

Finding and buying small oil Wildcatters is big business in the oil sector, and quite an advantage for more financially stable oil companies. These major oil companies do not only take advantage of the “falling share prices to snap up cash-hungry explorers”[8] but they also profit from the openings and access that these smaller companies are offering them in no-go-zones. Wildcatters can drill wells far from the usual oil fields, they can operate on the verge of legality and get things done, no matter what.

Openly forcing exploration in an armed conflict zone or World Heritage site will be too risky for the major oil companies advertising their corporate social responsibility endeavor. However, taking over the shares and participating interests in these controversial concessions when the first wildcat well has been drilled [seismic is done] seems to be a lucrative option.

But the most important question remains. Who will be held accountable for pushing oil exploration in a World Heritage site, for ruining 40 years of conservation work and for threatening the stability of the whole Great Lakes region?

A wildcatter, a major oil company or the governments behind these companies?


[2] Estimate from 1998 to 2009 – Source:

[3] Source:

[4] Source: SOCO Annual report 2011 –

[5] Source:

[6] Source:

[7] The Ugandan part of the Lake Edward is not protected by the Word Heritage site convention as the DRC side, being not a part of The Virunga National Park.

[8] Source:

One thought on “Save Virunga: Is Virunga Saved?

  1. Remain vigilant, no oil or mining company is to be trusted, the same goes for the DRC government and other governments who give the prospecting rights in the first place. This is not finished, it is a worldwide disaster.

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