A fabled park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is under pressure from oil developers.
And activists allege the dealings are tainted by corruption.
Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to volcanoes and some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas, may have its boundaries changed so oil rigs can dot the landscape.
At the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, Virunga borders Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and two national parks in Uganda. Because of the height of the seven volcanoes within the park, Virunga, created in 1925, has a spectacular range of species in environments from tropical to alpine.
Two oil companies, France-based Total and London-registered SOCO, were awarded development concessions in 2007 and conducted exploration in the Virunga area.
While both say they have since stopped their activities there, SOCO not long ago conducted seismic testing in Virunga’s Lake Edward area. Testing results are expected to be released later this year.
SOCO’s activities in Virunga have triggered environmentalists' accusations of corruption. "Virunga," a 2014 film about the park and the oil companies, included audio and video recordings purporting to show illicit activity.
London-based activist group Global Witness said those recordings include an alleged bribe made by a Congolese official to a park ranger to spy on Virunga’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode.
A member of DRC's Parliament allegedly admitted to taking monthly payments from SOCO to lobby for the oil company and a high-level SOCO official and a company contractor allegedly admitted that the company paid rebels.
In April 2014, de Merode was shot multiple times by unidentified gunmen soon after he submitted a report regarding SOCO and its activities to the regional public prosecutor. SOCO condemned the shooting, stating that "any suggestion linking SOCO to this crime is completely unfounded."
SOCO has "categorically denied" corruption allegations.
"The company operates in accordance with the [British] Bribery Act of 2010, and any allegation to the contrary is categorically denied," SOCO said in a statement last June. "Payments to rebel groups have never been, or will ever be, sanctioned by SOCO."
The company strongly denied allegations of impropriety raised by Global Witness and others, stating it "does not condone, partake in, or tolerate corrupt or illegal activity whatsoever." Regarding the alleged bribing of park rangers, SOCO says bribes “have never been, or will ever be, sanctioned by SOCO."
Still, British member of Parliament Tessa Munt, vice-chair of Parliament’s “Group on Anti-Corruption,” called in February for the British and United States governments to investigate SOCO and its Virunga-related activities.
The U.S. involvement would stem from SOCO’s U.S. subsidiary being registered in the U.S. state of Delaware, which enables the application of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act law banning bribery.
In response to Munt’s call, Minister of State David Lidington said Britain’s Serious Fraud Office knew of the allegations against SOCO and that communications with the United States on this matter were being examined.
UNESCO forbids oil development on its World Heritage sites.
UNESCO’s coordinator for Congo Basin projects, Leila Maziz, was quoted by London’s Guardian newspaper as saying changing Virunga’s boundaries to facilitate oil development “would not be a minor modification of the park limits. It would be a major modification that would impair the universal value of the park.”
Despite objections from conservationists, the Congolese government supports oil development in Virunga. DRC Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo announced in march that the government has contacted UNESCO “to explore judiciously” in Virunga and “reap the profit of its resources to benefit the people who live there.”
Global Witness spokesperson Peter Jones told VOA via e-mail that “Any discovery of significant quantities of oil would run the risk of encouraging the Congolese government to move decisively to declassify parts of Virunga to allow for oil drilling.”
Jones says that if Virunga’s boundaries were changed, “SOCO could drill for oil itself, or sell the block to another company, likely for a significant profit.”
“Either of these outcomes could mean that SOCO has profited from its presence in a UNESCO World Heritage site in which the company and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels, and benefited from fear and violence fostered by government security forces,” Jones said.
The World Wildlife Fund’s Congo Basin managing director, Allard Blom, told VOA via e-mail “The only safe Virunga is one free from the threat of oil. WWF stands behind civil society groups in the DRC that are calling for the government to choose a better alternative for Africa’s oldest national park, one that doesn’t scar the landscape, and threaten iconic wildlife like forest elephants and critically endangered mountain gorillas.”
SOCO said in June 2014 that it would not “undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park.” The statement then went on to say “unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”