World Wide Fund for Nature – UK (WWF-UK) filed complaints with the UK government today. The complaint concerns SOCO International’s failure to seek to prevent human rights abuses and carry out comprehensive human rights and environmental studies for its proposed oil exploration in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, in violation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD Guidelines).
SOCO International, a UK based company, is currently carrying out oil exploration activities in Block V of Virunga National Park, which covers an area of 7,500 square kilometres. Oil exploration and exploitation are officially not allowed in Virunga under DRC’s Order-Law No 69-041 of 22 August 1969 on the Conservation of Nature.
SOCO however has received authorisation to carry out exploration under an exemption provided for in Article of this law that permits “scientific research” in protected areas. This includes aerial and seismic surveys as well as the drilling of one or possibly two exploration wells after the survey data has been analysed.
Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park. It is a World Heritage Site listed as in danger, and a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance. Virunga comprises an exceptional diversity of habitats, ranging from swamps and steppes to the snowfields of Rwenzori, and from lava plains to the savannahs on the slopes of volcanoes. Virunga contains more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area in Africa, including populations of critically endangered Mountain gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, hippopotami, and other iconic species.
Oil developments can have devastating impacts on wildlife, habitats and people, from road-building, pipeline-laying, oil spills and pollution of land and water. It could harm residents’ health and damage the natural resources upon which 50,000 people depend.
“SOCO’s operations are putting Virunga’s people, animals and habitats at risk. The only way for Soco to come into compliance with the OECD guidelines is for the company to end all exploration in Virunga for good,” said Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director of Conservation at WWF International. “We urge the company to stop its activities immediately.“
By entering the park for oil exploration, SOCO has breached OECD guidelines urging respect for national laws and international treaties, according to WWF. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned that if oil reserves are confirmed, the finding could worsen deep-rooted conflict dynamics within DRC, including border conflicts with its neighbours.
The European Parliament and the Belgian parliament have passed resolutions that express multiple concerns about the DRC government’s authorisation of oil exploration in Virunga. The UK government has also expressed its opposition to oil exploration within Virunga. According to a UK Foreign Commonwealth Office (UK FCO) statement issued in September 2012 and reconfirmed in July and August 2013:
“The UK opposes oil exploration within [Virunga], World Heritage Site listed by [United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)] as being ‘in danger’. We have informed SOCO and urge the government of DR Congo to fully respect the international conventions to which it is signatory.”
WWF contends that SOCO is in violation of the OECD Guidelines, and in particular that its exploration activities in this World Heritage Site do not contribute to sustainable development. “SOCO has not conducted appropriate and systematic human rights due diligence, including how an “oil rush” in Virunga could impact human rights. The company’s use of state security forces during consultations and as promoters of its project has created a ‘heightened risk of intimidation’ in which many local residents do not feel safe to express their views or concerns, in violation of the OECD Guidelines.”
WWF calls on the OECD’s UK National Contact Point to facilitate a non-adversarial dialogue with SOCO to discuss how to bring the company’s operations into line with the OECD Guidelines. It is WWF’s estimation that this will require the immediate cessation of the company’s current exploratory activities in and around Virunga.