Soco 'pulls back' at Virunga


Soco International has agreed to relent from further exploration in Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park after ongoing seismic work is completed under a compromise pact amid environmental opposition to its plans, according to a report.

The London-based explorer has been at loggerheads with conservation campaigner WWF for months over its activities in Virunga, Africa's oldest and most bio-diverse national park.

WWF filed a complaint about Soco's activities in October to the British National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD). Such OECD contact points aim to uphold international standards in business.

In the deal agreed following mediation by the OECD contact point, Soco said it would suspend further exploration once it concludes seismic testing at Lake Edward unless the DRC’s government and Unesco agree it would not threaten the park’s status as a World Heritage Site, Reuters reported.

Soco kicked off the 2D seismic survey in April over its Block 5 concession at Lake Edward that it operates with an 85% working interest, with state company Cohydro on 15%.

"Soco is pleased that we were able to work together with WWF to hopefully find a way to jointly improve conditions in Virunga National Park and for its inhabitants," Soco deputy chief executive Roger Cagle was quoted as saying in a statement.

While acknowledging part of its 7500 square-kilometre concession lies within the park, the explorer has said its acreage does not lie within the park’s mountain gorilla habitat, volcanic or equatorial rainforest areas.

It said its area of particular interest is the block’s 1630 square-kilometre area of the lake and nearby lowland savannah.

The explorer previously estimated that the Albertine Graben acreage along the border with Uganda could hold as much as 3.5 billion barrels of oil.

WWF and other conservation groups say the park's fragile ecosystem will be threatened by exploration and production work and argue that Virunga is worth more to the Congolese people as a World Heritage Site than as a short-term source of oil.

WWF International director general Marco Lambertini said of the pact with Soco: "Today is a victory for our planet and for good practices in business.”

The group said last month that two of its employees had received death threats in Congo because of its opposition to Soco's plans.

The Virunga park's Belgian director Emmanuel De Merode, who was also publicly critical of Soco's plans, was recently shot and seriously wounded by unknown gunmen.

Soco has vigorously denied any link to that attack and condemned the threats against WWF staff.

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