In February 2018 COMICO, a company owned via UK registered entities, won approval to explore for oil in a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site in Democratic Republic of Congo, raising fears that oil exploration could destabilise not just a fragile ecosystem but also a volatile political situation in Congo. Global Witness’s research has uncovered the past involvement of a politically connected individual, a convicted fraudster and mysterious shell companies in the deal, the terms of which remain unpublished, in contravention of Congo’s own oil law.
Earlier this month, Global Witness revealed a new threat to two of Congo’s UNESCO protected sites, Virunga and Salonga national parks. The Congolese government has ramped up its efforts to remove legal protections from areas of these parks and open them up to oil exploration. Our new briefing sheds light on COMICO, one of the companies that has been allocated an oil block which partially overlaps one of these UNESCO World Heritage sites, and potentially stands to gain from the government’s attempts to allow oil exploration in the national park.
One of the three oil blocks assigned to COMICO encroaches on Salonga National Park, the largest protected tropical rainforest in Africa and home to up to 40 percent of the world’s Bonobo population and several rare species. COMICO’s production sharing agreements (PSAs) were initially signed over 10 years ago, but the company was not able to begin exploration until Congo’s President Joseph Kabila signed an ordinance in February. It is not clear why the PSAs have been revived now, nor who all the owners of COMICO actually are.
“UNESCO World Heritage sites make up a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface, yet even these few precious areas are being exposed to the risks posed by oil exploration and exploitation,” said Jean-Luc Blakey, senior campaigner at Global Witness. “Oil companies must commit to keeping out of these fragile ecosystems and governments must stop allocating licences that cover these areas. What’s equally concerning are the circumstances around this deal. We don’t know in full who is behind COMICO or the terms of the deal, and this lack of transparency raises concerns.”
Global Witness was able to find some details of the ownership of COMICO published in Congo’s ‘Journal Officiel’, but the information is not complete. Further investigation by Global Witness has found that today 40 percent of the company is under the control of Guernsey registered Centrale Oil & Gas, an entity that forms part of the business empire of South African Adonis Pouroulis. Past records show that, at various stages, controversial Portuguese businessman Idalécio De Oliveira has also held a stake in COMICO.
Pouroulis started out prospecting for diamonds in Angola in the late nineties. He is now involved in a wide range of natural resource projects across Africa via his company Pella Resources. Oliveira was accused of paying bribes, linked to the sale of an oil block, as part of the Car Wash corruption scandal and was tried in Brazil in 2016. While the judge said he believed it was likely that Oliveira was aware of the bribery he was implicated in, the court ruled that the evidence was not conclusive enough to convict him and Oliveira was acquitted. This decision was appealed in 2017 by the Brazilian public prosecutor, the case is ongoing.
At least one Congolese politician has also been involved in COMICO: Monfort Konzi, an ex-cabinet member of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s political party Mouvement de Libération du Congo, set up the company with Oliveira in 2006. However, Konzi no longer seems to be involved. Interestingly, in 2007 a small shareholding in COMICO was also transferred to Shumba International Limited, a mysterious Mauritius company that is now defunct. Despite attempts by Global Witness to ascertain its owners, it is not clear who might have been behind Shumba.
When contacted by Global Witness, lawyers representing Mr Pouroulis and Centrale said confidentiality around the ownership of COMICO was for “legitimate commercial reasons unconnected with bribery and corruption or other financial crime”, and that “none of the other beneficial owners have been convicted of bribery, corruption, fraud or other financial crime.”
“Various companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions appear to have obtained shares in COMICO just as it was in the process of acquiring Congolese oil permits. Without full disclosure of the owners of these offshore companies we cannot be sure who benefits or has benefitted from this company that now owns oil exploration rights in this UNESCO protected site in Congo,” said Blakey.
The allocation comes amidst an unravelling political crisis in Congo. Elections were supposed to be held in late 2016 but President Kabila has overstayed his constitutionally-permitted two terms in power despite deadly protests against his regime. Elections are now scheduled for December 2018 but Kabila has refused to rule out changing the constitution to remove term limits and standing for election a third time. These refreshed PSAs raise the possibility that the Kabila regime is seeking to extract more revenue from the country’s natural resources during this precarious time – possibly to build up a financial war chest for elections.
Global Witness calls on COMICO to commit to keeping out of Salonga National Park and to reveal a complete list of beneficial owners of the company both today and since 2006. The Congolese government should publish its contract with COMICO, as stipulated by the oil law, and all payments made by the company to the Congolese government should also be made public. Governments everywhere should stop allocating natural resource contracts in fragile ecosystems and the integrity of UNESCO World Heritage sites should be respected and preserved.
Notes to editor:
full text of the report ‘Not for Sale: How Congo’s forests must be protected
from fossil fuels industry’ is
map showing the overlap between a COMICO oil block and Salonga National Park
can be found in the briefing. This
map is based on a letter that Centrale Oil & Gas and Adonis Pouroulis’s lawyer
sent to Global Witness.
Leighton was an accountant for COMICO when they were granted their PSAs in
2007. According to Farrar’s Building,
Four Sentenced for £100 Million Film Tax Avoidance Scheme, 30th
June 2016, Norman Leighton was convicted of conspiracy to cheat the public
revenue in the UK. He was given a two year suspended sentence due to ill
health, foreign residency and lesser involvement.
- Details of the case related to Idalécio de Oliveira can be accessed at
https://www.jfpr.jus.br/ with the Process
number: 50276853520164047000 and Electronic Key: 194821988816.
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