‘Drillers in the mist’: How secret payments and a climate of violence helped UK firm open African national park to oil
British oil company Soco Internationaland its contractors havemade illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence fostered by government security forces in eastern Congo, as they sought access to Africa’s oldest national park for oil exploration.
The shocking behaviour of one of the UK’s 200 largest public companies is laid bare in a new report released today by Global Witness. Our findingsare based on undercover recordings gatheredin the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of an investigation by UK film-makers, which have been reviewed by Global Witness.
The material was gathered in the course of research for the feature-length documentary Virunga but only some of it features in that film, which will be released on Netflix in November.The material includes audio and video recordings by a court-appointed investigator, community activists and French freelance journalist Mélanie Gouby.
Among the most startling evidence in the recordings are: a Congolese intelligence officer closely allied to Soco offering a park ranger thousands of dollars to spy on the chief warden of Virunga National Park, Emmanuel de Mérode; a senior Soco official and one of the company’s contractors appearing to admit that Soco paid rebels; and a local MP admitting to having received monthly payments from Socofor lobbying in favour of the company.
Activists and park rangers who criticised Soco’s operations have been arrested, and in some cases beaten or stabbed, by soldiers and intelligence agents supporting Soco’s entry to the region. Some of these cases are described in our report and were also documented independently by Human Rights Watch in June this year.There is no evidence that the security forces in questionwere acting on instructions from the company.
Soco has yet to find oil in the park. Following sustained pressure from campaigners, it pledged on 11 June that, after completing seismic testing, it would not “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”. The ambiguity of Soco’s position leaves the door open to the park being fully or partly declassified for oil. This was underlined by a report in the Times on the day of the announcement, where Soco Deputy CEO Roger Cagle said Congo and Unesco could agree to redraw Virunga’s boundaries.
“Soco is threatening Africa’s oldest national park through an oil project marred by bribery, intimidation and violence,” said Nat Dyer of Global Witness. “Pension funds and other investors must demand that Soco quits Virunga for good and that it accounts for its actions.”
Soco denies the allegations in our report, saying that it “does not condone, partake in or tolerate corrupt or illegal activity whatsoever” and that bribes to park rangers “have never been nor will ever be sanctioned by Soco”. The company also said that it is committed to the protection of human rights and that it would investigate if there was evidence of wrongdoing.
Global Witness is calling on Soco’s shareholders – including Aviva, Legal & General and the Church of England – to tell the company to pull out of Virunga National Park for good and commission an independent inquiry into Soco’s Congo activities. This inquiry should look at allegations of corruption, secretive payments and the arrest and intimidation of opponents by Congolese security forceswho supportSoco.
We are also calling for authorities in the UK and the US to launch investigations into corruption allegations surrounding the company.
Virunga, where Soco has been exploring for oil, is home to a quarter of the world’s 880 remaining mountain gorillas and has more species of birds and mammals than any other African national park. Soco’s oil plans in the world heritage site have been opposed by many local community groups, Unesco and western governments.
De Merode, Virunga’s chief warden, survived being shot in the stomach and chest by unknown gunmen in April, shortly after handing in a report on Soco’s activities to the regional public prosecutor. Congolese authorities are investigating the shooting of de Merode, who had gained the hostility of many groups wanting to exploit the park, ranging from rebels and elephant poachers to supporters of oil exploration. Soco has condemned the attack and says “any suggestion linking Soco to this crime is completely unfounded”.
The shooting of de Merode was a stark reminder of the dangers facing those standing up for Virunga, where 130 park rangers have been killed since 1996.
The film Virunga relates the struggle of park rangers to protect Virunga in the midst of conflict. It has already won prizes in film festivals in the USA, Canada and Belgium, and received plaudits from Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson.
Notes to editors:
- Global Witness’s report on Soco International’s operations in eastern Congo is here:http://bit.ly/1nxlePi
- Before publication, Global Witness sent 20 questions to Soco on 27 May (http://bit.ly/ThuH4E). Soco responded, although avoiding specifics, on 4 June (http://bit.ly/1teHTqu). Soco’s lawyers and public relations advisers wrote to various media outlets on 3 September 2014, hours before our report was due to be published, saying that Global Witness had refused to provide the company with “any evidence to support its allegations” and that invitations to engage with the company had been ignored. In fact, Global Witness sent the CEO of Soco a summary of the core allegations and a list of detailed questions about its activities in Congo on 27 May 2014. This was followed by a two-hour meeting on 29 May with representatives of the company during which there was a detailed discussion of the subject matter of Global Witness’s report. Global Witness does not provide advance copies of reports to companies that are the subject of our investigative pieces, and does not disclose material that could compromise our sources. In conjunction with our reporting Global Witness has made publicly available in full the lengthy letter we received in response to our enquiries, as Soco requested and set out clearly in our report the company’s position in response to any allegation against it, where a response was made available. It should also be noted that Soco held a copy of the documentary Virunga well before receiving our 27 May questions. Virunga includes much of the undercover footage discussed in Drillers in the mist. Soco had read the detailed Human Rights Watch report of 4 June 2014 (“DR Congo: investigate attacks on oil project critics”). The Human Rights Watch report contained much detail about allegations of human rights violations by supporters of Soco and of bribery, and Soco’s response to these allegations has been posted online.
- Illegality of oil exploration in Virunga: More than half of Soco International’s Block 5 in the Albertine Grabenfalls insideVirunga National Park, a world heritage site in eastern Congo. Congo’s Nature Conservation Law, signed into law in February 2014, declares “null any right granted within the boundaries of protected areas”. The law says that exemptions may be given for “scientific research” and activities in the “public interest” through a decree from the Council of Ministers, which Soco has not received. Prior to February 2014, Congo’s national parks were governed by its 1969 Nature Conservation Lawwhich says that land in national parks “cannot be transferred or placed under concessions”.Soco“denies that their operations in the park are illegal and states that it is committedto abiding by international and national law” (http://bit.ly/1owP4EL). For more details on the legal issues surrounding oil rights in Congo’s national parks, see page 8 of our report
- Virunga documentary awards: Grain Media’s film Virungawon the Best Documentary award at the Little Rock Film Festival in Arkansas, USA; the Feature Documentary Award at the Doxa Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver; Emerging International Filmmakeraward at Hot Docs film festival in Toronto (for director Orlando von Einsiedel); and the ConScience award at Docville in Leuven, Belgium. For more information on the film see:www.virungamovie.com.
- Previous publications: Global Witness revealed Soco’s oil exploration permits covering Virunga in March 2012. On 13 June we published a statement on Soco’s announcement that it was ceasing oil operations in Virunga: “British oil company’s back-tracking on World Heritage Site looks like a ruse”. We also published a blog on lobbying by Congolese government officials and others at a recent Unesco summit to allow oil operations in the park. Global Witness’s 2005 report into an oil trading scandal in neighbouring Republic of Congo featured Soco’s acquisition of an offshore oil block, the company’s first acquisition in west and central Africa.