Virunga Park Again Threatened by Oil

Categories: Journal no. 55, Mining for mineral resources, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga National Park, Eastern gorillas, Gorilla Journal

Parc National des Virunga (© Angela Meder)

Conservationists had hoped that Virunga National Park has been granted a reprieve after the 2015 withdrawal of the oil company SOCO who had wanted to drill in the park. However, the relief was short-lived: Kinshasa just re-assigned the controversial permit to another offshore oil company.

Back in June 2014, the British firm SOCO International - bowing to intense pressure from environmentalists - announced the end of its activities in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Virunga National Park. In March 2015, on its website, the British firm announced that it no longer holds the licence of block V, an area of 7,529 km² of which 52 % is inside the park. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) proclaimed victory.

The park's chief conservation officer, Belgian Emmanuel de Merode, and other conservationists fear that seismic exploration and possible oil exploitation could damage the rich but fragile biodiversity of the park. It is not only a refuge of the mountain gorillas - a population shared with the Rwandan Volcanoes Park, the Ugandan Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and the Impenetrable Forest - but also includes part of Lake Edward whose ecosystem provides livelihoods for more than 50,000 fishing families. All this would be threatened in the event of an oil spill.

Many Coincidences ...

Two years after the departure of SOCO, the nightmare has resurfaced. The Parisian organization Africa Energy Intelligence (AEI) just revealed that the Congolese government has not ruled out oil exploitation in the park. The Congolese National Oil Company (Sonahydro) signed an "agreement in principle" to reassign SOCO's license to an unknown company named Oil Quest International, a subsidiary of Oil Quest Holdings, which is an offshore company registered in the Isle of Man and owned by Palestinian businessman Amjad Bseisu, Briton Tom MacKay, adviser of the London-based Gemini Oil & Gas, and Jon Ford, a former BP geologist.

The Director of this mysterious entity, Oil Quest International, is listed as Rui Miguel Léon-Suberbielle, a French national. AEI notes that Léon-Suberbielle is none other than the son of the current president of SOCO, Rui de Sousa - which is unlikely to be a coincidence. He himself is well known in the energy sector, being a former director of Gazprom Invest and president of Quantic Mining, a company trading mining and oil products, all of which have their headquarters in Beirut. A second coincidence, noted by AEI, is that Oil Quest's man in the Congo is the former SOCO country representative, José Sangwa Kanyunzi. Put together, this is enough to raise suspicions that SOCO is aiming to recover block V through a new identity. Strangely, Rui de Sousa denies having any interests in the company run by his son.

What is certain is that an important resource is at stake. The geologists of SOCO and Oil Quest are well aware that over on the Ugandan side of the border the Irish firm Tullow Oil has discovered reserves of 1.7 billion barrels. There is a good chance that the five blocks of the Congolese Albertine Rift will also contain valuable resources: the geology suggests that the oil fields will extend on both sides of the border.

An exploitation project with this dubious background risks being invalidated sooner or later for legal reasons - quite apart from the risk to the operator of being vilified internationally as an enemy of endangered fauna and flora. It is precisely for this reason that in May 2013, the French giant Total, the holder of block III of the Congolese Albertine Rift, committed not to carry out exploration within the current limits of the park. Total was anxious to avoid a stigma such as that suffered by Shell due to the pollution of the Niger Delta.

During a meeting held at the European Parliament in October 2014, the Director of the park, Emmanuel de Merode, said: "The laws in the Congo are extremely clear. Oil exploitation is not permitted in a World Heritage Site". He added: "Article 215 of the Constitution provides that any international agreement ratified by the (National) Assembly shall take precedence over national laws; and thus, it is unequivocally illegal to explore oil within the park under the current legislation". Along the same lines, UNESCO's former Director-General Irina Bokova has warned the Congolese authorities several times that the Virunga National Park would be withdrawn from the list of World Heritage Sites if they authorized drilling within the park.

Why then are Sonahydro and the oil minister Aimé Ngoy Mukena trying to revive the project? The film Virunga, shot with a hidden camera by director Orlando von Einsiedel, reveals corrupt practices on the part of SOCO. Are they trying to profit from dirty money? If so, at what level?


Summary of an article by François Misser in La Libre Afrique