Virunga, a stunning film about the struggle of park rangers to protect Africa’s oldest national park from the threat of oil drilling and rebel groups, has received a well-deserved nomination for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. Its London-based film-makers are also in the running for a BAFTA and have won a clutch of other international awards.
The feature-length documentary contains disturbing undercover footage of an employee and contractors of a British oil company called Soco International, which has the rights to explore for oil in an area which overlaps Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to a quarter of world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Global Witness analysed this undercover footage and carried out further investigations to produce a report into the oil company’s activities in Virunga called “Drillers in the Mist”. The report shows how Soco International and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence in eastern Congo, as they sought access to the park for oil exploration.
London-listed Soco is on the FTSE 250 stock exchange and is run by its CEO and Deputy CEO who are both from the U.S. It denies the allegations in our report, saying that it “does not condone, partake in or tolerate corrupt or illegal activity whatsoever”.
Before publishing the report, Global Witness sent Soco International a list of questions asking, amongst other things, about the company’s relationship to supporters of its oil project in the government, army and national parks authority in Congo. Soco’s seven-page reply “categorically denied” breaching UK bribery laws, “condemn[ed]” violence and intimidation and said that “[p]ayments to rebel groups have never been nor will ever be sanctioned by Soco”.
The company did not include specific replies to most of our questions and, as interest in the story increases, here are 10 critical questions that the company still has to answer:
- The documentary Virunga shows undercover recordings of Soco’s liaison officer in the Congolese army, an intelligence officer called Major Burimbi Feruzi, offering money to a senior park ranger to collaborate with Soco. This interaction included a request that the park ranger spy on Emmanuel de Merode, the chief warden of Virunga National Park. Does Soco contest this?
- Was Major Feruzi acting on instruction from Soco or its contractors?
- What payments and benefits – if any – have Soco, directly or indirectly, given to Major Feruzi?
- Was Major Feruzi involved in arresting or intimidating opponents of oil exploration in eastern Congo, as described in “Drillers in the Mist”?
- Virunga also shows Major Feruzi introducing Pieter Wright, one of Soco’s security contractors, to the park ranger as his “boss”. The ranger, a public official, is then given an envelope of cash, with Wright saying it is “just to say thank you”. In spite of the assertion that Soco “categorically denied” breaching UK bribery laws, do you regard the specific behaviour of this contractor as lawful?
- Soco says that, “If anyone is found to be in violation of the [company’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics] they will be subject to disciplinary action”. Did Soco discipline or dismiss either Major Feruzi or Pieter Wright after viewing the evidence in the film?
- Soco’s ‘focal point’ in the Congolese national parks authority (the ICCN), Guy Mbayma, was filmed telling Virunga’s rangers that if they worked with Soco they “will get money, money, money”. He also said that if they objected to oil exploration that they “will be fired”. Did Mbayma receive money from Soco, as the head of the Congolese national parks authority has, separately, suggested?
- What payments and benefits – if any – have Soco, directly or indirectly, given to Célestin Vunabandi a former consultant for Soco who is MP for an area covering much of Soco’s oil block, and until recently a government minister?
- Did Soco, directly or indirectly, pay local organisations to stage a public demonstration in support of oil exploration in Vitshumbi, a town within the park, in April 2012 and was Célestin Vunabandi involved in arranging this?
- Exactly how did the British Virgin Islands company Quantic Ltd – which owns 15% of Soco’s oil block in eastern Congo and is paid a $50,000/month consulting fee by Soco – help secure oil rights in Virunga for the company? Can you provide a full list of Quantic’s shareholders past and present?
In November, David Attenborough added his voice to those calling for answers from the company saying, “The allegations raised by the Virunga film and Global Witness deserve a serious response from Soco, and merit investigation by law enforcement authorities in the UK, the US and other relevant jurisdictions.”
The company agreed a statement with WWF in June last year not to commission further work in the park unless Unesco and the Congolese government “agree that such activities are not incompatible with World Heritage status”. Global Witness said that the statement “looks like a ruse” and Soco has not ruled out further oil exploration within the current boundaries of the park, if these were to be moved. Global Witness is calling on Soco to commit to no oil activity within the current boundaries of Virunga and not to sell on the block.
The company’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics says that it will investigate allegations of wrongdoing and, if they are substantiated, refer cases to the “appropriate crime prevention authorities”.
Soco International has failed to answer critical questions from Global Witness regarding its links to illicit payments to park rangers and other supporters of its oil project in Africa’s oldest national park. Now, as the Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga puts the oil company under the international spotlight again, Soco must come clean about its murky project in a world heritage site.
Virunga: The Movie is streaming now on Netflix: watch it here.