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UK government opposes Virunga oil exploration – SOCO must take note

28 September 2012

In an important development this week, the British foreign office announced: “The UK opposes oil exploration within Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO as being ‘in danger’.” This comes after London-based oil company SOCO International has been granted permission to conduct aerial surveys for oil exploration in Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Aerial photo of Block 5 in Virunga

The foreign office statement goes on: “We have informed SOCO and urge the Government of DR Congo to fully respect the international conventions to which it is a signatory. 

“We remain committed to supporting UK companies in DRC and throughout the world. Foreign investment in sectors such as hydrocarbons and the extractive industries can play a vital role in boosting the development of DRC, lifting people out of poverty. Such investment needs to be done responsibly and sustainably, in compliance with local law and conforming to international standards.”

This statement follows the announcement at the weekend by the DRC Minister of Hydrocarbon, Crispin Atama Tabe that: "The DRC has the right to know what resources it has under the earth, even if it's in the park or the forest, anywhere."

It is currently against Congolese law to prospect or exploit minerals inside the country's national parks, but Atama Tabe said the legislation could be reviewed. As he explained:

"We're going to evaluate the quantity of the deposit. If it's very significant we'll compare the value of the park with the oil... We'll see whether we'll respect the park or not. It's up to us," he said - adding that exploration could take up to three years.

‘Block 5’, which is 85% owned by SOCO, is part of the Albertine Graben, an area which has already attracted oil major Total in ‘Block 3’ in the north of the park.

Responding to the foreign office announcement, Dr Susanne Schmitt, head of our ‘Green Heart of Africa’ programme, says: “WWF-UK welcomes the statement by the British government opposing SOCO International’s exploration for oil in Virunga National Park. Virunga is the jewel in the crown of Africa’s national parks and the home of the iconic mountain gorilla.

“Oil and mining development is incompatible with the international World Heritage Convention. The DRC government must respect this convention, which is enshrined in its national laws. Moreover, the DRC government must put all oil development on halt, including any exploration activity by SOCO, until the EU-funded Strategic Environmental Assessment results are fully known.”

Not only is Virunga uniquely rich in wildlife, it’s also an important source of local livelihoods - 30,000 local people depend directly on the fish stocks of Lake Edward, which will be a drilling site for SOCO.

In a meeting of local community civil society organisations in North Kivu this week, their views were strongly expressed : "We are very concerned about the potential negative impact of oil development on our Lake Edward. We are depending on fish and the fresh water that this Lake gives us. We are depending on the unique ecosystem of the Lake. Oil development can lead to pollution, which would destroy its productivity."

World Heritage sites only cover 1% of the world’s surface area and should receive the highest form of protection. The world must speak out against the efforts by the DRC government and others around the world to undermine the status of these unique places.

Let’s be clear - if anybody would even consider demolishing the Acropolis in Greece there would be a global outcry. Isn’t it time we value our natural World Heritage just as much?

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