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Virunga National Park safe - for now

by Dave Armstrong 12 Jun 2014
Virunga National Park safe - for now

Amazing that in such a rare species, there are 2 of these-twins. Dian Fossey studied their Susa group many years ago in the Virunga; Gorilla image; Credit: © Shutterstock

NB. proviso and update at the end of this article from the National Park Management, one of whom just escaped an assassination attempt!

We bring bad news so often, it's great to have the good. SOCO International is a British-registered group that works as an oil exploration company in the Democratic Republic of Congo. WWF (the World Wildlife Fund) have now extracted something from SOCO themselves. It is an agreement to wrap up operations in the vast, 7,800 square km (3000 square miles) Virunga National Park, the main home of the critically-endangered mountain gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei and many other rare animals and plants.

GRASP is the Great Ape Survival Partnership, heralding the decision in their newsletter here, in - GRASP Welcomes Decision. The work of WWF and others has produced a result that contrasts with the oil palm plantations, mining, logging and other unsustainable industries in Africa. Oil exploration in a World Heritage Site was always a gamble for SOCO. The number of species critically affected or made extinct by such major disruption or even its infrastructure of road or rail is unimaginable.

The Virunga Park was established almost 90 years ago and now stands as a monument to our opposition to rapid development without thought. Biodiversity is nowhere richer and ape species are only threatened more in SE Asia with 99% of the orang utan habitat within Borneo and Sumatra gone. No further work in World Heritage Sites will now be undertaken by 3 companies (including Shell Oil and Total.) Ed Story who is SOCO's current chief executive seems a little repentant with, "Hopefully we can all get back to activities focussed on both people and the environment where it does the most good for a place that we think can have a better future."

He seemed a little repentant, but this is the locals' opinion -------

11th June 2014, Statement from Producers of Virunga:

Since our efforts began in Virunga National Park we have worked in conjunction with many partners towards the day when Soco International, the British oil company illegally working in this world heritage site, might leave.

It seemed to most of the world’s media that that day came yesterday but with it came a worrying lack of detail on what this would actually mean for Virunga National Park and the communities living in and around it – some four million Congolese people. Whilst of course we welcome the move by Soco International to withdraw, we assert that this withdrawal must be unconditional and based upon Congolese and international rule of law and nothing else.

Soco International's conditional agreement to leave the park does not absolve them of the serious and detailed allegations that have been brought against them by our film Virunga, as well as the recent Human Rights Watch report and consistent local civil society group statements on the behaviour of Soco International staff, sub-contractors and supporters in eastern Congo – a series of allegations that add up to a worrying lack of oversight by this FTSE 250 company. Soco International is yet to address these allegations in detail.

The local community remain worried and skeptical, one local Human Rights defender, Bantu Lukambo, President of Human Rights organisation IDPE told us:

“Is this a real victory? Soco declares that they won’t go further with their exploratory work, but they are planning to complete the seismic, aren’t they? The situation is unchanged, to me, the danger is still there, and much remains to be done."

A second Congolese activist Josue Mukura, Head of the Vitshumbi Fisheries Association, Copeile, said:

“It looks like the company has already completed everything it wanted to do - they are staying another 30 days to finish their seismic studies - and now they are washing themselves of responsibility by escaping from everything they've done wrong in the park and misleading the public. This announcement is also hiding other issues such as what will happen to the oil concession.”

We also note Soco International’s Deputy CEO Roger Cagle’s worrying clarifications on the company’s thinking in The Times today:

Mr Cagle said “if the DRC wanted to benefit from its oil, it could even apply to Unesco to remove Virunga from the list of World Heritage Sites. It forces DRC and Unesco to come to some kind of accommodation, as has been demonstrated in many other places where they have accommodated things in world heritage sites by redrawing boundaries and by agreeing to certain activities being conducted in certain ways,”

We believe this shows disingenuous intentions by the Company to attempt to make what is currently illegal, legal by declassifying the park – before continuing with its work.

The position of both the UK Government and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has been both consistent and strong on the illegality of Soco International's work in Virunga National Park and the DRC government has shown strong support for the management of the park after the recent assassination attempt of Emmanuel de Merode, its Director, by unknown actors.

We would like nothing more than to celebrate Soco International’s withdrawal from Virunga but until vital questions are answered we remain vigilant and cautious on the next stage for the park.

Orlando von Einsiedel, Director and Producer, Virunga and Joanna Natasegara, Producer, Virunga

For further enquiries please contact:

Joanna Natasegara, or on +447946-582-641

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