When an oil company promises to suspend hugely controversial work in Africa’s oldest national park it should be cause for celebration. But the commitment by British oil company Soco to withdraw from Virunga National Park—a Congolese World Heritage Site that is home to rare mountain gorillas—was rife with ambiguity.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So no huge surprise when a leaked letter from Soco assured Congo’s prime minister that reports of a withdrawal were overstated—or to hear the firm’s deputy chief talk of nudging Unesco into redrawing Virunga’s borders.
“In light of news announced this morning by various radio channels of our disengagement from oil exploration activities in Virunga National Park, we would like to draw to your attention that this information is inaccurate,” Soco’s country chief in the Democratic Republic of Congo, José Sangwa, wrote to Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo on 11 June.
And as newspapers and campaigners trumpeted Soco’s joint declaration with the WWF earlier that day as a victory for conservationists, Soco Chairman Rui da Sousa was telling investors at the firm’s annual general meeting, attended by Global Witness, that “we have not pulled out”.
With the announcement looking increasingly like a ruse, Global Witness headed to a summit of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in Qatar in June to investigate lobbying efforts in favour of Soco’s Virunga project. The World Heritage Committee has oversight of all world heritage sites.
What we found was an aggressive campaign to defend the drillers: backroom meetings to petition Unesco officials and a Qatari princess, and a deliberate attempt to circumvent Congolese delegates who had come to Doha to protect Virunga.
Soco officials did not participate in these meetings. However, the Congolese delegation included a consultant to the company and the oil minister, who fought the company’s corner.
A document from Congo’s environment ministry, viewable here, even says the oil company would pick up the tab for some of the delegation. Under a list of eight officials going to represent Congo at the Unesco conference, it says “Costs of the mission – to be charged to Soco E&P-DRC” (the company’s Congolese subsidiary).
Soco denied paying for the officials listed on the environment ministry document. “Soco has not funded travel to Qatar and specifically not in the period during or surrounding the Unesco summit,” the company told Global Witness in a 11 July email. Soco had received an “incorrect” request to fund the trip and turned it down, according to spokeswoman Carol Fan. A member of the delegation told Global Witness that Congolese oil ministry officials at Doha were funded from levies paid by the oil industry, and not directly from Soco. Oil ministry officials did not reply to questions e-mailed by Global Witness.
Whoever footed the bills, Soco should explain why just days after announcing its apparent suspension of activities in Virunga, its consultant Serge Darroze was in Doha as part of an official Congolese delegation lobbying Unesco to let Soco drill.
“We’re working on the government’s behalf trying to respect Unesco’s ideals, to protect World Heritage sites. For us, it’s a technical matter but the politicians are on top,” said one Congolese delegate, concerned about the push for oil in Virunga.
Darroze declined to comment when contacted by Global Witness. In an e-mail to Global Witness, Soco distanced itself from Mr Darroze, saying he “did not participate in the Unesco summit as a representative of Soco”. In fact, Soco added, “Mr Darroze attended the Unesco summit at the request of the ICCN [the Congolese national parks authority], in his capacity as an environmental expert”.
Cosma Wilungula, the head of the ICCN, said this was untrue. “I told Unesco that I don’t see any reason why these people [Darroze and the oil ministry officials] shouldn’t come. You can’t say, on that basis, that I invited them,” he said, adding that “the ICCN has never sought help from external experts” for Unesco summits.
Big oil, heavy hands
So what did the Congo lobbyists get up to in Qatar? Insiders say the initial aim was probably to persuade the secretariat of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee to back a compromise deal to allow drilling in the park. With the secretariat on board, a proposal could then be put to the 13 countries on the Committee.
When Congo’s turn came to speak at a public session, it certainly seemed to be singing from Soco’s hymn sheet. “It’s important to reconcile the protection of parks and the development of our country,” the Congolese oil minister said.
The day before, Congo’s delegates, including Darroze, had held a private meeting with top officials of the World Heritage Committee’s secretariat, according to representatives present. But the pressure doesn’t seem to have paid off. The minister asked “Unesco to help move forward to oil exploitation, as Congo has a small budget,” according to Wilungula’s account. Darroze, he said, told the Unesco officials that Virunga’s wildlife population (including hippos and elephants, as well as its famous mountain gorillas) was in a poor state anyway – an argument often advanced by Soco to downplay the importance of preserving the park. In response to questions from Global Witness, Darroze said “we have no comments to make on this subject”.
The arguments didn’t cut much ice. The World Heritage Committee’s official resolutions at Doha called on Congo “to cancel all the oil exploitation permits granted” in Virunga, as “oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status.
The lobbying lacked subtlety, one senior delegate from a nation on this year’s committee told Global Witness. “It was a pretty heavy-handed approach, bringing along an oil minister,” the delegate said. “I don’t think they really understood how the committee works.”
Failure to broker a compromise means Soco’s supporters could switch to Plan B: shifting the park’s borders. There’s a precedent for this. In 2012 after a committee vote, Selous, a Tanzanian game reserve, was gerrymandered to accommodate a uranium mine. But here too, the oil lobby’s arguments look shaky.
“Virunga isn’t the same as Selous,” the delegate says. “There you’re talking about a tiny fraction of a per cent of the site, which didn’t affect the park overall. To change a World Heritage Site boundary you need to show you’re not damaging its outstanding natural value. That’s impossible with Virunga.”
That logic seems lost on Soco. Congo and Unesco need to come to “some kind of accommodation… by redrawing boundaries,” Soco deputy chief executive Roger Cagle told The Times on 11 June. In fact, Soco doesn’t appear to have much respect for the idea of Virunga as a World Heritage Site at all.
“I am aware of what the area looks like today, scarred by decades of deforestation, poaching and violence,” Soco Deputy Chief Executive Roger Cagle wrote to Georges Dallemagne, a Belgian MP, in a 29 November 2012 letter seen by Global Witness. It’s a strange description of what Unesco describes as a “unique” environment with “exceptional biodiversity” and a “rich diversity of habitats that surpass those of any other African park”.
Cagle didn’t convince Dallemagne. “I am shocked that any company claiming to behave in a responsible manner would espouse that reasoning,” he replied on 5 December 2012. “On the contrary, the current fragility of the park necessitates total abstention from any additional risk to its future.”
Undeterred in Doha, the pro-Soco lobby secured a second high-profile meeting, according to three people with knowledge of the matter: an audience with Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, the Qatari princess who chairs the World Heritage Committee. Qatar had earlier spoken in support of oil exploration in Virunga.
Virunga is “rich in underground deposits”, a Qatari delegate told the summit. “We need to think of new solutions. All governments are duty-bound to work for the well-being of their populations, which means they naturally must make the effort to look for alternative sources of energy and wealth.”
Sheikha Mayassa and the Qatari delegation did not respond to requests for comment by Global Witness. Soco said it is “unaware of any purported efforts to solicit Qatari support for oil exploration in Virunga”. Global Witness was unable to find out what was discussed at the meeting with Sheikha Mayassa.
So what next? Soco isn’t currently exploring. But if Soco’s letter to Congo’s prime minister is anything to go by, the company wouldn’t be drilling now anyway—even without controversy over Virunga. The company recently completed seismic surveys and it now needs up to a year to analyse the data.
“Soco will process and analyse the data and by mid-2015 will be able to determine if there are areas for drilling, so that the DRC government can take the necessary measures to follow up the exploration or not,” Soco executive Sangwa wrote.
A pro-oil Congolese MP put it bluntly. The suspension was “to calm investors” and to allow “Soco’s share price on the stock exchange to rise”, Francois Nzekuye told Congolese television on 15 June. “Soco hasn’t thrown in the towel yet,” he added, and part of Virunga could ultimately be declassified.
So far, undermining the integrity of one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems may be proving harder than oil lobbyists have bargained for. But the ham-fisted tactics on display in Doha show Soco’s plans for Virunga are very much alive.