Just a few hours ago, I was at Soco International’s offices to hand in WWF’s OECD complaint on their conduct in Virunga National Park. The hand-in itself was uneventful – I just delivered an envelope to an anonymous office building – but it was an important step in our campaign to save Virunga.
Our complaint alleges that Soco International plc has breached the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) guidelines on how companies should act when conducting business anywhere in the world. We believe that in the course of Soco’s oil exploration activities in and around Virunga National Park, the company has violated environmental and human rights provisions in the guidelines.
There are different issues that our complaint raises. You can read all of them here. But one of the issues that I personally found disturbing was around the consultation with the people living in the region.
In the UK, any major infrastructure project goes through a detailed consultation process with the public and with the people who’ll be affected by such a project. No doubt the consultation process in the UK could be improved, but generally it’d include public meetings where people can raise their concerns, and an opportunity to file objections. And in cases where the process hasn’t been duly followed, there’d be a chance to seek judicial review.
Anyone living in an area where a major project is planned would want information on the likely impact it might have on their life, what might happen to the environment, whether the project might bring benefits to them or to their community, and whether there would be any negative implications for them. The public debate around the High Speed Rail 2 and the planned shale gas drilling projects are examples where there’s an ongoing public debate.
But what our complaint alleges is that for the local community around Virunga, the consultation that Soco conducted was below standard or even worse. For example, Soco has never published its Mitigation and Rehabilitation Plan. This plan is where a company assesses the potential social and environmental impacts of its activities. How can local residents near Virunga know what the impacts of the project on their family, community and the environment where they live are likely to be if this information isn’t disclosed?
Though Soco didn’t disclose the document, we have obtained a copy. In it, the company itself admits that even its scientific research might have some long-term impact on land animals, aquatic animals and people. One of the potential impacts listed by the company is ‘disturbances in fish reproduction’.
It might not sound much, but for people who depend on Lake Edward in Virunga National Park for their survival, it is a great deal. And what about the seemingly innocuous effect of ‘short-term loss of fishing jobs or revenue’? With our social safety networks in the UK it might not be a big deal – but in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, the impact of a temporary loss of income could be devastating. Another potential impact is the risk of water contamination.
Not publishing the Mitigation and Rehabilitation Plan before the consultation could have been a bureaucratic error. But without it, it’s impossible for locals in Virunga to participate in a meaningful way.
What would happen if such a thing occurred during a consultation in the UK on fracking? Would this be acceptable? I don’t think so. If we in the UK can have the right to know what the impacts of fracking might be on the water we drink, why can’t people in eastern DRC have the same right?
Is it too much to ask that a British company operating there to be transparent and provide good, reliable information to locals?
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But why deliver this complaint to SOCO too? Watch my video update: