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Bageni family in the gorilla sector of Virunga National Park, Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Brent Stirton / WWF.
Bageni family in the gorilla sector of Virunga National Park, Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Brent Stirton / WWF.
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Virunga - UK Government to investigate oil company

The Ecologist

17th February 2014

The UK Government is to examine the activities of London-based oil company Soco over alleged violations of environmental protections and human rights abuses in Africa's first National Park, home to 200 Mountain gorillas.

I would challenge Soco to match the recent commitment of Total not to explore for oil in the Virunga World Heritage Site.

The move was triggered by WWF's complaint alleging that Soco International PLC has breached the most respected global corporate social responsibility standards in its pursuit of oil in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

WWF's case has exposed "material and substantiated issues meriting further examination", according to the UK National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its initial assessment.

"Virunga's fragile ecosystems make it the most biodiverse protected area in Africa, a status recognised by the World Heritage Convention", said David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK.

"I would challenge Soco to match the recent commitment of Total not to explore for oil in the Virunga World Heritage Site."

Intimidation, unlawful detention ...

In the complaint, WWF documented evidence of alleged violations of the OECD's Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises including intimidation, threats and unlawful detention of local activists by state security forces used by Soco.

The company is also accused of withholding critical information about environmental and social risks from those likely to be impacted by the company's activities.

It has now been determined that these - and other allegations, including violations of World Heritage protections - warrant a formal examination by the UK's OECD National Contact Point to determine if breaches have occurred.

The OECD Guidelines complaint mechanism applies to corporate enterprises operating in or from any of the 45 nations adhering to the agreement. As part of its mandate to promote responsible development abroad, the OECD has developed this transparent process to hold multinational corporations accountable for meeting their obligations.

International agreements 'disregarded'

"This announcement demonstrates the seriousness of WWF's complaint against Soco's activities in a protected World Heritage Site", said Nussbaum.

"We believe Soco have disregarded international environmental and social responsibility standards in their pursuit of oil and profits, and the decision today indicates that our concerns warrant further examination.

Again, we urge Soco to stop their exploration in Virunga and bring to an end the unacceptable level of risk this would create for the environment and local communities."

He added that the OECD Guidelines, which call on companies to accept the provisions of such international treaties, open up a powerful new means of holding companies to account.

"This decision by the UK Government opens up to the conservation community a new avenue for safeguarding Virunga and other threatened environments."

The protests are growing

Communities in the area of Soco's planned activities are protesting against oil exploration in the park.

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and Parliamentary resolutions in Belgium and Germany, have all objected to Soco's operations in Virunga. More than 600,000 people have signed a WWF petition against the plans of the company.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has called for the cancelation of Soco International's permit, and French oil giant Total has committed publicly that it will not enter the World Heritage Site.

Virunga is Africa's oldest national park and home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Although 85% of the park has been allocated as oil concessions, Soco is the only company moving forward with exploration.



Photographs of Virunga National Park for media use:

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