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

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.


John Vidal, environment editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Virunga is saved but Africa's wildlife is being encircled sliver by sliver | Ian Birrell
Ian Birrell: Campaigners have managed to keep the Congo national park free from drilling just as protected sites elsewhere are being cravenly redrawn

Ian Birrell

13, Jun, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Campaigners force Shell to halt oil exploration on South African coast
Court instructs company to stop tests along Wild Coast after concerns raised about wildlife and lack of consultation

Jillian Ambrose

28, Dec, 2021 @1:20 PM

Article image
Richmond v Chevron: the California city taking on its most powerful polluter
Local activists are suing the fossil fuel firms that gave the city life – but may also be slowly killing it

Susie Cagle in San Francisco

09, Oct, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Congo's rare mountain gorillas could become victims of oil exploration

WWF warns of environmental disaster and permanent conflict if British firm begins drilling for oil inside Virunga national park

John Vidal

01, Aug, 2013 @8:26 AM

Gilberto Torres survived Colombia's death squads. Now he wants justice
He is one of only two Colombian union activists to be abducted by paramilitaries and live. Now BP and other oil firms face allegations they were complicit in human rights abuses

Mary Carson, Adrian Gatton, Rodrigo Vázquez and Maggie O'Kane

22, May, 2015 @6:58 AM

Article image
UK oil firm 'paid Congolese officer who offered bribe to Virunga park ranger'
Leaked documents appear to show Soco paid $42,000 to officer who was filmed offering bribes to opponents of oil exploration in DRC national park

John Vidal

09, Jun, 2015 @11:01 PM

Tim DeChristopher supporters issue oil protest 'call to action'
Activist spends first day in prison as civil disobedience group vows to use two-year sentence to build momentum for further protests

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent

27, Jul, 2011 @4:40 PM

Article image
Niger Delta Avengers militants shut down Chevron oil facility
String of attacks by group – who claim to fight for environment and local people – have pushed down Nigeria’s oil output

Ruth Maclean in Dakar

26, May, 2016 @12:14 PM

Article image
Climate activist Tim DeChristopher due for sentencing
'Bidder No 70', who won bogus bids for $1.8m of drilling rights, could face up to 10 years in prison

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent

26, Jul, 2011 @10:18 AM

Article image
Arctic oil: it is madness to celebrate a new source of fossil fuels | John Sauven
John Sauven: As the first barrels head for Europe, we cannot afford – and do not need – new sources of harder to reach fossil fuels

John Sauven

18, Apr, 2014 @3:36 PM