UK oil company announces workplan to explore in Congo’s UNESCO World Heritage site after pressure from Global Witness
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Global Witness reveals previously unpublished exploration permits
A London-listed FTSE250 oil company, SOCO International, has announced plans to press ahead with oil exploration in Africa’s oldest National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They announced the plans on Wednesday evening, after Global Witness contacted SOCO for a response.
Two permits – published today by Global Witness - giving SOCO the go-ahead were signed by DRC’s hydrocarbons and environment ministries despite a previously announced commitment by the government to suspend oil exploration in the Park pending the result of a Strategic Environmental Assessment. The assessment, funded by the EU and other international donors, is expected to be complete in late 2012.
SOCO’s plans to undertake an aerial survey have already been made public. However, the permits being published today appear to give the green light to a broader range of exploration activities, including seismic surveys. A number of reliable sources also indicate that SOCO is pushing ahead with plans to establish a camp in the fishing community of Nyakakoma, in the heart of the Park.
Virunga National Park is situated in a highly vulnerable ecosystem which is the source of the Congo and the Nile Rivers. It is a vital habitat for numerous protected species including mountain gorillas, hippopotamus and elephants, and is home to Lake Edward, which stretches over 2,300 km2 and supports the livelihoods of around 50,000 people.
“Undertaking oil exploration or exploitation on the ground in a UNESCO World Heritage site constitutes a breach of the Convention on World Heritage, as well as DRC’s own laws and constitution”, said Colin Robertson of Global Witness. “SOCO’s plans are a real threat to the protection of Virunga’s wildlife and to people who depend on Lake Edward. The region is also marked by ethnic tensions and the presence of armed militia groups is still a threat to stability. These factors could be exacerbated if oil exploration is carried out without consulting local people.”
SOCO has previously been accused by the Park’s managers of entering Virunga illegally, notably in February 2011 when representatives travelling in a SOCO vehicle are reported to have forced the barriers. In a response to Global Witness SOCO stated that these accusations were “without merit” and that “no SOCO personnel or representatives have been involved in such an incident.”
In a response to Global Witness SOCO stated that they have not yet conducted any exploration activities and had completed an environmental and social impact assessment. The company also clarified that it had obtained approval for aero-surveys, which involve flying over Lake Edward and that any activities beyond this would only be conducted with approval of the government and in consultation with stakeholders. SOCO also said that it had consulted extensively with local stakeholders including at two large workshops in February 2011 and said that these outreach efforts would continue.
“SOCO and the Congolese government must await the results of the Strategic Environmental Assessment before rushing into decisions that will damage livelihoods and a unique World Heritage site,” continued Robertson.
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Notes to editors:
- The permits being published today are available for download below in their original French.
- An English translation of the Hydrocarbons Ministry's permit is also available for download below.
- The permit issued by the Hydrocarbons Ministry appears to give the go ahead for all exploration activities detailed in article 8 of the production sharing agreement for Bloc V. This production sharing agreement is available here in its original French: http://mines-rdc.cd/fr/documents/Hydro/contrat_rdc_dominion_soco_cohydro.pdf. The relevant section can be viewed on page 16-18. An English translation of relevant section is available for download below.
- Both the 1969 Law on Nature Conservation and the 2011 Environment Code prohibit oil exploration activities in protected areas. They would also be a breach of the Convention on World Heritage which DRC has ratified. Article 215 of the DRC’s constitution states that such treaties take precedence over all national laws. On 8 March 2012 Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders described the recent exploration authorisations as “contrary to Congolese legislation and international commitments”.
- The order signed by the Environment Ministry authorises “aeromagnetic and aerogravimetric” surveys in Bloc V. The order signed by the Hydrocarbons Ministry seems to give SOCO the go ahead for a full range of exploration activities including on the ground seismic tests.
- It emerged publicly in 2010 that SOCO International had signed a contract covering Bloc V of the Albertine Rift. Bloc V contains a sizeable chunk of the Virunga National Park. SOCO has published information on its activities in Bloc V: http://www.socointernational.com/csr-virunga_new.
- SOCO holds its interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) through its 85% owned subsidiary, SOCO Exploration and Production DRC Sprl ("SOCO E&P DRC").
- UNESCO have also expressed their concerns about the situation in a news release: http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/849/
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