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Soco to halt oil exploration in Virunga national park

Virunga national park

Virunga is home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Creative Commons: Joe McKenna, 2012

Following months of intense campaigning, environmentalists can claim a victory today, as British oil company Soco has agreed to end controversial drilling operations in the Virunga world heritage site – Africa’s oldest national park.

In an unexpected decision, the company has said it will also commit to remain out of other UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The announcement followed an intense campaign, headed up by WWF, in which the group warned of the “devastating consequences” if drilling in the area proceeded.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International said:

Today is a victory for our planet and for good practices in business. This success is the work of government officials, activists in DRC and supporters worldwide who joined together to help remove the most immediate threat to Virunga. Now is the time for the DRC government to reaffirm its conviction that Virunga has outstanding universal value for all humanity by cancelling all oil concessions overlapping the park requested by UNESCO.

Soco’s decision to pull out of Virunga follows legal mediation in London last week with WWF – following a complaint made by the NGO under the OCED’S Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

It is thought that the company ultimately bowed to the intense pressure it was under from the British government, UNESCO and high-profile individuals including Richard Branson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who all condemned the exploration.

Over 700,000 people had also signed petitions against the company drilling in the region.

Last month WWF said members of its staff working in the area had been telephoned with death threats connected to the organisation’s opposition to oil development.

Virunga was designated a world heritage site in 1979, but has since become one of the world’s most volatile regions at the centre of intense fighting between armies and militias like the Mai Mai rebel group for more than 20 years.

It is also home to tens of thousands of people who fled the genocide in Rwanda. Conservationists argued that if oil was to be found and exploited in the park, it could lead to the pollution of Lake Albert – which 50,000 families depend on for fishing – and could further destabilise the region.

Drilling would also put the region’s invaluable biodiversity at risk, which includes rare animals such as the critically endangered mountain gorilla.

A report commissioned by WWF found that the park could grow in value to over $400 million annually through activities such as ecotourism and fisheries.

Soco has said it will withdraw from Virunga after conducting its current operational activities, which includes seismic testing in Lake Edward. In a statement the company said:

Soco has agreed with WWF to commit not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga national park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its world heritage status.

WWF says the commitment will send a message that World Heritage Sites and other fragile natural areas must be protected.

Later this month, governments will gather in Doha, Qatar for the annual meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to discuss the conservation status of Virunga, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, Donana National Park in Spain and other sites of concern.

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