Oil plan abandoned in African park

A London-based company has abandoned oil exploration in Africa's oldest national park, which is home to critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Virunga National Park is home to critically endangered mountain gorillas
Virunga National Park is home to critically endangered mountain gorillas

Oil and gas exploration company Soco International is ending its operations in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and has also committed to staying out of other World Heritage sites.

The move, which comes after a sustained campaign by environmentalists to stop oil exploration in the World Heritage site, was hailed as a "victory for our planet" by wildlife charity WWF.

The company said it committed not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within the park unless World Heritage body Unesco and the DRC government agreed that such activities were not incompatible with its World Heritage status.

It will end operations after completing the seismic survey on Lake Edward, which is due to conclude shortly, it said.

The national park is made up of lakes, savannah, forests, volcanoes and is home to rare wildlife including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, b ut 85% of the park has been allocated to oil concessions.

Unesco has called for the oil exploration permits to be cancelled and for energy companies not to drill in World Heritage sites.

David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, said: "Today is a victory for our planet. Congolese people around Virunga were joined by scientists and lawyers, activists and artists, governments, investors and WWF supporters worldwide to remove the immediate threat of oil exploration.

"Now is the time for the government of the DRC to reaffirm its conviction that Virunga has outstanding universal value for all humanity - by cancelling all oil concessions which overlap the park, as requested by Unesco."

WWF had filed a complaint against Soco under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) guidelines for multinational enterprises and today's commitment follows mediation between the two parties under the process.

Ed Story, chief executive of Soco, said: "Today's public commitment adds further definition and transparency to the company's approach regarding Virunga National Park and other World Heritage sites.

"Hopefully we can all get back to activities focused on both people and the environment where it does the most good for a place that we think can have a better future."

Around half the area covered by Soco's licence to explore for oil falls outside the park.

The licence did not include the mountainous sector of the park ,which is home to the mountain gorillas, and the company had already stated it would never seek to have operations in the gorilla habitat, the Virunga volcanoes or rainforest.

But WWF warned that energy development could still damage wildlife, and lead to oil spills, pipeline leaks and gas flaring which could contaminate air, water and soil in the local environment.

In a report published last year, the charity said seismic surveys and exploration led to clearance of natural vegetation and development of illegal settlements, fragmenting habitat for species such as elephants and providing access to poachers and rebels active in the area.

Development of oil resources in the troubled region could also fuel further conflict, as minerals form the main source of export revenue and foreign exchange, and could be targeted by rebels for finance and lead to renewed instability.

Instead, WWF urged sustainable development of the park, which it said could generate 45,000 jobs through investments in the fishing industry, hydropower schemes and eco-tourism, which in neighbouring Rwanda is booming.

Raymond Lumbuenamo, country director WWF-DRC said: "If free from the threat of oil, Virunga can be a continuing source of hope for the people of DRC.

"As in other African countries, with proper investment this park can become a leading economic driver for its communities.

"This is the moment for the international community to support DRC to help us bring lasting change that will ensure Africa's first national park remains the mother park of Africa."

WWF said continued efforts with business, the investment community and governments around the world were needed to remove the pressures that put Virunga and other World Heritage sites in danger.