UN urges Congo to ban oil drilling in gorilla park

KINSHASA Fri Nov 26, 2010 11:52am EST

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KINSHASA (Reuters) - The United Nations' cultural arm UNESCO has appealed to Congolese President Joseph Kabila to guarantee there will be no oil exploration in the forest home of rare gorillas where two UK-listed firms hold drilling rights.

SOCO International and Dominion Petroleum were awarded a presidential decree to Block 5 of east Congo's Albertine Graben in June. Plans for a seismic survey include exploding dynamite, despite the fact that the rebel-heavy area overlaps with the protected Virunga National Park.

In a letter seen by Reuters, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova warned Kabila of "extremely damaging repercussions" of oil activity and asked him to ensure no exploration took place in the park, which is also home to chimpanzees, lions, elephants, and migratory birds so rare it has special wetland status.

"I call on you to guarantee that no oil exploration or production will be committed at the heart of the Virunga national park," she said in the letter dated August 6, which noted past commitments by Congo to protect the World Heritage site.

Local environmentalists argue that any exploration would be contrary to Congo's own laws.

"Congolese legislation does not authorize mineral and petrol production in national parks," said a November 15 letter seen by Reuters to Environment Minister Jose Endundo from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

It noted SOCO's environmental impact assessment, required by law, made no reference to the park's status as a protected zone.

DONORS TO EXPRESS CONCERN

Separately, a World Bank official said it and other donors were planning to express concern to the government and question how oil development was compatible with Congo's commitments.

Calls to Kabila's office for comment went unanswered on Friday. However, Endundo played down the concerns.

"We'll do everything to preserve the park but the Congolese people also have to benefit from the riches under the soil," he told Reuters by telephone.

Endundo noted that if oil activities were excluded from the park, he might seek compensation along the lines of a pact signed by Ecuador in August, under which the Andean nation expects payments from rich nations in return for not drilling for oil in a wildlife reserve in the Yasuni National Park.

Operator SOCO, which has 38.25 percent of the block, and Dominion, with 46.75 percent, told Reuters in July they would start seismic exploration this year with a view to production after three years. Congo has the remaining share.

Company maps seen by Reuters indicate drilling will take place throughout the park and the companies have sent in teams.

"I don't see any problem if it's done correctly," Roger Cagle, deputy CEO and chief financial officer for SOCO told Reuters by telephone, adding its partner Dominion was already working in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park.

"We've paid for the opportunity to explore a previously unexplored block; we're not expecting it to be a moving feast because it hasn't been sold to us as that," said Cagle, adding the company's presence could increase security of the park.

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