British oil explorer SOCO in major climbdown over Virunga oil deal

SOCO THROWS IN THE TOWEL AS SOCIAL MEDIA S***STORM UNSETTLES THE COMPANY

(Posted 12th June 2014)

Following the attempted assassination of the Virunga National Park chief game warden Emmanuel de Merode in mid April, has the UK oil exploration company SOCO found itself under virtual siege, with allegations flying high and low. As more and more individuals came forward to narrate their own stories of coercion, strong arming, outright threats and the alleged use of force to keep fishermen at Lake Edward away from sites or push people off their land to give exploration teams a free unfettered run, so did public opposition wordwide grow, expressed on the social media, expressed in the UK media and expressed by leading business icons, clearly unsettling the shareholders and top management of SOCO.

An article published here two days ago explained in some detail the continued threat for the Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo, one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots and home to some 200 mountain gorillas, through the activities of the oil company, adding further pressure on them to follow the example set last year by French oil giant TOTAL, which committed itself to forego any exploration inside the Virunga massif.

There was a jubilant mood among conservationists yesterday when news broke that SOCO had thrown in the towel and announced that they will forthwith halt any further exploration inside the national park, prompting immediate demands on the regime in Kinshasa to exclude the Virunga massif from any future exploration activities and from any further oil or other mining concessions to keep this UNESCO World Heritage Site intact for future generations.

The following news item was received yesterday and reflects on the strength of sentiment SOCO was faced with over the past weeks and days, as the company’s denials of complicity in the attempted assassination of Merode clearly fell on deaf ears:

Start quote:

Soco halts oil exploration in Africa’s Virunga national park

British oil company bows to pressure and abandons drilling in volatile and biodiverse region of Democratic Republic of Congo

· By John Vidal, environment editor

· The Guardian, Wednesday 11 June 2014

A woman walking past a sign for Virunga national park. Soco has abandoned its oil exploration plans in the world heritage site. Photograph: T/WWF

Conservationists have claimed one of their greatest successes in recent years following the unexpected decision by British oil company Soco to stop exploring in the Virunga world heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The company, which operates in Angola and Vietnam, caused international outrage when it was given permission to conduct seismic testing in Africa‘s oldest and most diverse national park, which is home to around half the world’s 950 mountain gorillas, as well as hippos, elephants and chimpanzees.

The decision to pull out of Virunga national park follows legal mediation in London last week with WWF, but Soco is believed to have ultimately bowed to pressure from the British government, Unesco and high-profile individuals including Richard Branson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and US financier Howard Buffett. All condemned oil exploration in what is considered one of the world’s most volatile regions. Leading conservation groups collected the signatures of more than 700,000 people.

In a joint statement with WWF, the company said: "Soco has agreed with WWF to commit not to 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.

"We will complete our existing operational programme including completing the seismic survey on Lake Edward which is due to conclude shortly. The Company confirms its previous statements that no Block V drilling commitments have ever been made. The conclusion of this phase of work will give the DRC government vital information it will need in deciding how to proceed in Virunga national park."

Virunga was designated a world heritage site in 1979 but since then has become one of the world’s most volatile regions. The park has been at the heart of intense fighting between armies and militias like the Mai Mai rebel group for more than 20 years and is home to tens of thousands of people who fled the genocide in Rwanda. Many park rangers have been killed and last month the Virunga chief warden,Emmanuel de Mérode,was shot and seriously wounded.

Conservationists had argued that if oil had been found and exploited, it would potentially lead to the pollution of Lake Albert on which 50,000 families depend for fishing, and could further destabilise the region by exacerbating conflict between rival groups.

Conversely, studies commissioned by WWF had argued that the park could support up to 45,000 people if "peaceful" industries like hydropower generation, fishing and ecotourism were developed.

"If free from the threat of oil, Virunga can be a source of hope for the people of the DRC. This park can become a leading economic driver for its communities", said Raymond Lumbuenamo, country director of WWF-Congo DRC.

Soco follows French oil company Total, which pledged not to explore in the park last year. However it is possible that other oil companies will seek to develop its resources because exploration licenses cover 80% of the park.

"Now is the time for the DRC government to reaffirm its conviction that Virunga has outstanding universal value for all humanity – by cancelling all oil concessions that overlap the park", said David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF UK.

Soco said it would continue its social investment projects in the area, including road upgrades, medical programmes and mobile phone masts. "Soco will honour commitments we have made to local inhabitants to continue with our social programmes as long as we hold rights to the Block V licence", said the company in its statement.

Comments posted on the site include:

Joe Trapido emptyend

11 June 2014 6:45pm

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1

I don’t like to impugn motives so I am assuming all of you sceptical commentators are just expressing your genuine beliefs. It is important however to point out that the article and the headline are not in fact misleading – Soco have bowed to external pressure and it was very much the intention of the Congolese government to grant permission – this from le Potentiel one of Kinshasa’s most reliable newspapers with good contacts within the current government states ‘Crispin Atama Tabe, ministre des Hydrocarbures, prévient : au cas où, le potentiel pétrolier s’avérait important, Kinshasa est prêt à se lancer dans la production’ (rough tranlation being: Crispin Atama Tabe says in the event that the petrol potential is important Kinshasa is ready to get into production). As the article notes, other players than the WWF may have been more important behind the scenes (notably the British government which seems to have done the right thing for once) and only time will tell if this deal prevents exploitation in the park but this is at least a stay of execution.

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Joe Trapido Joe Trapido

11 June 2014 6:48pm

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I missed out that Crispin Atama Tabe is minister for hydrocarbons

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2 PEOPLE, 2 COMMENTS

GorillaPie

11 June 2014 9:51am

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10

Fantastic news and could set an interesting precedent for other World Heritage Sites too…

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kblixen GorillaPie

11 June 2014 12:49pm

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Yes ! Good news to cherished and encouraged elsewhere.

Report

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Knowles2

11 June 2014 10:31am

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perhaps the current surveys are turning up empty or are not commercially viable?

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Renewoods

11 June 2014 10:59am

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Best news today.

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VictorMariategui

11 June 2014 12:07pm

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What do you say to that Rafael Correa?!!

End quote

Notably did Congo respond to the news with an armed incursion into Rwanda on the same day, perhaps trying to put up a smoke screen of sorts to overshadow the good news from the conservation front which constitutes a major setback for them and very likely impacts on their future ability to recklessly savage and rape the Virunga environment for what is seen as potentially major source of personal enrichment among the regime elite in Kinshasa. Rwanda is of course in stark contrast renowned for the absolute protection of her part of the Virunga massif and the mountain gorilla habitat and Rwandan conservationists have been working hand in hand with Merode’s team under a tripartite arrangement which extends to all three mountain gorilla range countries, Uganda, Rwanda and Eastern Congo. Watch this space for breaking and regular conservation news from the wider Eastern African region.

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