WWF urges Britain's Soco not to seek oil in DRC game park

1st August 2013, Comments 0 comments

British firm Soco International must abandon plans to drill for oil in Africa's oldest national park, environmental campaigners WWF said Thursday.

WWF said tapping oil would be deeply wrongheaded in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga park, home to endangered gorillas and 3,000 other species and immortalised by the film "Gorillas in the Mist".

"Oil companies are standing on the doorstep of one of the world's most precious and fragile places," WWF's executive director Lasse Gustavsson told reporters.

Soco chairman Rui de Sousa stressed in a statement earlier this week that the firm was "extremely sensitive to the environmental significance of the Virunga National Park," and that it was eager to find a way for development and conservation there to "work in partnership".

The 7,800-square-kilometre (3,000-square-mile) Virunga park was created in 1925 when the country was a Belgian colony.

WWF's DR Congo director Raymond Lumbuenamo charged that the government was also at fault.

Despite its own environmental rules and international accords, the government of conflict-wracked but resource-rich DR Congo in 2007 awarded oil concessions in most of the park.

The UN cultural body UNESCO has said oil exploration and exploitation would breach Virunga's World Heritage site status, and in May French giant Total -- Soco's fellow concession holder -- said it would not drill there.

But Soco's de Sousa insisted that if the DR Congo wants to go ahead with oil exploration, "an accountable and responsible British company like Soco would be the best operator in the circumstances."

The company has for instance vowed not to drill in the mountain gorilla habitat, or in other particularly sensitive areas.

Besides being home to flora and fauna that thrive in its network of forests, savannas, rivers, lakes and marshlands, Virunga Park is also a crucial resource for hundreds of thousands of humans, WWF said.

"Oil exploration here could have disastrous results for local communities that depend on Virunga for fish, drinking water and other needs," Lumbuenamo said.

De Sousa however stressed that the company's exploration project in the park came with rigid environmental monitoring and social investment.

"A successful oil project has the potential to transform the economic and social wellbeing of a whole country," he said.

WWF disagreed, disputing the idea that an oil industry could prove beneficial to a region long afflicted by conflicts between ethnic groups, rebels, the government and neighbours such as Rwanda.

Gustavsson highlighted the case of Nigeria's Niger Delta, saying decades of production there had resulted in pollution and, despite annual oil revenues totalling some $10 billion, the local population had little to show for it.

In DR Congo, he said, there was also a risk that an influx of outsiders seeking potential work could stoke further conflict.

A report commissioned by WWF from independent consultants Dalberg said that better tapping of the park's fishing, water power and ecotourism potential could generate $1.1 billion a year, though it acknowledged that peace would need to come first.

© 2013 AFP

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