At a time when extractive companies are committing not to explore or extract in World Heritage Sites and financial institutions are excluding such projects from permitted loans, SOCO International plc’s oil activities in Virunga seems a regressive step.
This is especially strange for a company that publically states that the “protection of the environment remains a business priority.” (Ed Story – SOCO President and Chief Executive Officer. 2012 Annual Report, p.9.)
When David Nussbaum (CEO WWF-UK) and I met Rui de Sousa, SOCO’s chairman, in July 2013 to discuss Virunga National Park and his oil company’s proposed activities in this special place, he said that one of the options was for SOCO not to go into the park. Since then, through our campaign, we have sought to persuade him and the other board members that this would be the right decision to take.
What has struck me is their steely resolve to open up this fragile and volatile region to oil development, despite growing opposition from both inside and outside of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It seems to me that the more opposition they face, the more determined they are to go into Virunga National Park.
Just over six months into our campaign to conserve Virunga and the list of organisations against SOCO has grown. They now include:
- International institutions (UNESCO and the European Parliament),
- Countries (UK government, German and Belgium parliaments),
- Non-governmental organisations (London and Frankfurt Zoological Societies, Flora & Fauna International, Global Witness, Greenpeace and Wildlife Conservation Society
- Civil society organisations, both in the capital Kinshasa and in and around Lake Edward
In addition, SOCO is being increasingly challenged by financial institutions that hold its shares to justify its actions. Other oil companies – such as Total – have not only made a commitment to stay out of Virunga but have joined the likes of Shell to commit to stay out of all World Heritage Sites globally. After Total made its no go commitment, SOCO remains the only oil company pushing for oil development in Virunga World Heritage Site.
So what reason does SOCO have for opening up and threatening Virunga?
Yes, the Park and its species have suffered in the 20 years of civil unrest in the region, resulting in UNESCO listing it as ‘In Danger’ in 1994. But as recently as 2009, the European Union praised the excellent management of Virunga and now tourism is slowly picking up again which shows the park hasn’t lost its attraction.
The appropriate response to this threat is not – as SOCO suggests – to sacrifice Virunga’s environmental and economic potential for damaging oil exploration and possible extraction. It is to release this potential for the maximum benefit to the local communities – it is to save the park and the promise and value it holds for this generation and for the ones to come.