The Battle for Oil in Virunga National Park

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The World Wildlife Fund recently announced a victory in the fight to prevent British oil company Soco from drilling in Congo’s Virunga National Park after an agreement was reached following mediation by the OECD – the international body that issues guidelines for multinationals operating in foreign countries.

Critics say the deal leaves more questions than answers with the campaigning organisation Global Witness saying: “it leaves too much wiggle room.” Congolese activists who have been subject to abuses question why WWF rolled over so easily.

Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa, is a unique ecosystem of mountains, forests, savannah and volcanoes that is home to rare mountain and lowland gorillas, elephants, okapi and many other flora and fauna.

The park is also a haven for rebel groups, militias and poachers and is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site that was placed on the organisation’s endangered list in 1994 as Congo collapsed into war and thousands of refugees from the genocide in Rwanda fled across the border.

Shortly after the agreement was made, Soco’s CEO, Roger Cagle, appeared to move the goal posts by suggesting that DRC could apply to UNESCO to redraw the boundaries of the park to exclude part of Lake Edward, where Soco is exploring for oil.

Guy Debonnet, Chief of UNESCO’s Special Projects Unit, speaking from the World Heritage Committee’s annual meeting, said: “the reasons why this site has ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ is very clearly documented with the criteria and justification” – “it specifically mentions Lake Edward” he continued.

WWF’s Colin Buttfield told Al Jazeera that if Soco “take anything that is outside that agreement we won’t hesitate to reopen the campaign on them again.”

Despite promises from Kinshasa to devolve power to the regions, North Kivu Provincial governor, Julien Paluku, admits the future of the Park is not in his hands: “It is a matter exclusively under the remit of the central government” he said.

The park’s director, Emmanuel Merode, was recently shot and seriously wounded by unidentifed assailants in military uniform. The attack highlighted the dangers faced by those who are working to prevent the park’s destruction.

An award-winning documentary, ‘Virunga’, shows Merode and the park rangers in their struggle to protect the park and uses hidden cameras to capture Soco’s contractors and supporters apparently offering bribes.

A Human Rights Watch report also made allegations of bribery, death threats and intimidation against those who challenge oil prospecting in the park.

“Government officials who support oil exploration and some of whom are paid by Soco representatives have been behind some of the incidences that we have documented” said Ida Sawyer, HRW’s DRC researcher. “In other cases it’s not known yet who is behind it” she added.

Soco has denied the claims but refuses to discuss the matter saying: “Soco is not conducting any interviews.” The company states: “Soco operates under a strict Code of Business Conduct and Ethics, which it takes extremely seriously.”

Critics say they are not taking it seriously enough and Soco could potentially face prosecution under the UK’s 2010 Bribery Act which governs the behaviour of UK registered companies operating in foreign countries.

The Bribery Act says companies are liable for the behaviour of contractors. Robert Barrington, Executive Director of Transparency International, said the law “assumes that a company is guilty unless it can prove that it had adequate procedures in place to prevent the bribe being made.”

The ‘Axis of Evil’

The oil company Soco is a maverick player in an industry that has attracted bad press from the beginning. As the USA recognised the need to ‘diversify’ the sources for its huge demand for oil so-called ‘frontier markets’ became the new game in town.

In a 2008 interview with the UK’s Daily Mail, Ed Story, Soco’s CEO, referred to those markets as ‘the Axis of Evil’ commenting: “We go to a lot of strange places. We like to be there first and define the terms rather than take someone else’s.”

Soco’s chairman, Rui de Sousa, as CEO of Toro Group, was one of the names on the famous Iraq Oil-for-Food sanctions-busting list published by Iraqi newspaper Al Mada. The list featured people and organisations that allegedly received oil sales contracts from Saddam Hussein that were then sold via middlemen for a considerable kick-back.

De Sousa’s partner in the Monaco-based Toro was Patrick Maugein who became non-executive chairman of Soco until he died in 2006. Bloomberg referred to him as one of a secretive, informal group of traders with a preference for corrupt governments they called the ‘Rich Boys’ who were all under the wing of the late billionaire Marc Rich: “the most-wanted white-collar criminal in U.S. history” until his controversial pardon by Bill Clinton.

Another of de Sousa’s partners is Samy Maroun, a Lebanese businessman who is also a director of Quantic, an offshore company that was used to form Soco DRC. Quantic was cited in a 2003 report by auditing firm KPMG on state corruption in neighbouring Republic of Congo for buying government oil below market price.

Across the river Congo in Brazzaville they are lampooned in the press as ‘les sourciers blanques’ – white wizards – for their closeness to the Republic of Congo’s dictator Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Dangerous borders

Soco’s first venture in the DRC was in Bas Congo on the tiny strip of Atlantic coast that is sandwiched between Angola and its enclave Cabinda. While the project ultimately failed the company admitted it allowed them to build relationships with the Congolese government.

DR Congo has been enmired in a series of disputes with Angola over the demarcation of the border and oil extraction. Congo claims Angola owes it hundreds of millions of dollars in lost oil revenues and caught in the middle are thousands of Angolan and Congolese immigrants as both countries began a tit-for-tat series of violent expulsions.

The Congolese experience on the disputed coast has no doubt coloured its approach to the oil reserves in the Albertine region that includes Virunga Park and lies alongside its border with Uganda. As Uganda rushes forward to develop the oilfields on their side Congo fears losing out again.

This is not helped by Congo’s history during the war when both Uganda and Rwanda sponsored Congolese rebel groups and looted minerals resulting in a violent battle between their national armies on the streets of the Congolese city of Kisangani.

Uganda and Congo have already clashed over oil in Lake Albert which resulted in the Ugandan army killing six people on a Congolese passenger ferry. The area has become increasingly militarised and yet no agreement has been reached on the exact demarcation of the border.

Dr Ola Bello, Head of the Governance of Africa’s Resource Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says shared frontiers are a problem throughout Africa.

“Congo and Uganda need to have an enlightened dialogue” and “failure to do that means we may see more of the past and probably something even worse” he added.

Congo’s lack of infrastructure and the Albertine oilfields distance from any coast mean it will have to take a regional approach in order to access international markets.

In 2011 Uganda’s oil minister, Simon D’ujang, announced a 750 mile pipeline from the Albertine oil fields to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

The battle over Virunga’s oil is not only about wildlife and conservation but about ongoing armed violence and corruption in a highly volatile region.

Both Uganda and Kenya have soldiers in Somalia and Al Shabaab specifically linked the Westgate attack to the Kenyan army presence.

Al Shabaab also claimed responsibility for twin bomb attacks in Uganda’s capital Kampala in 2010. More recently the US government has issued warnings of specific threats in the city.

In DR Congo the army has been fighting Ugandan ADF rebels who are based in Virunga Park and have also been linked to Al Shabaab. An alphabet soup of other armed groups can be found both in the park itself and nearby.

Ola Bello suggests that oil installations are vulnerable, “the sort of insurgents that we are seeing emerging in different parts of the continent are very well-trained, very much directed to making an impact with a high-profile attack that gets the international media’s attention” he said.

In the Eastern Congo people are tired of violence, they are proud of the Virunga Park and most see it as a source of hope. The park has reopened for tourism and employment opportunites are on the horizon.

Lake Edward fishermen have already been told they cannot fish for three months while seismic testing takes place and if oil drilling goes ahead their livelihoods are threatened. The lake supports 80,000 people who could end up as fodder for rebel recruitment.

Meanwhile, a letter from Soco’s DRC director, Jose Sangwa, to Congo’s Prime Minister Matata Ponyo, was leaked to the Virunga film website.

It says media reports that Soco intend to quit the park are ‘inaccurate’. “We will be able to determine mid-2015 if there are areas to be drilled so that the DRC Government can take all appropriate steps to continue or not” it states.

Joanna Natasegara, the documentary’s producer said: “the world thinks Virunga is safe but the situation is much more complicated, much more dangerous and much more difficult to communicate to the general public.”

NOTE: This article was originally commissioned by Al Jazeera English in June 2014    You can read the latest Global Witness Report on Soco Oil in Virunga here.

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