June 11, 2014 / 12:10 AM / 6 years ago

Soco agrees to suspend oil exploration in Congo's protected park

KINSHASA (Reuters) - British oil company Soco International has agreed not to explore in Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park unless its government and UNESCO agree it would not threaten the area’s world heritage status.

Soco 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 and Development. Such OECD contact points aim to uphold international standards in business.

Under a deal reached following mediation by the OECD Contact Point, Soco said it would suspend further exploration plans once it concludes seismic testing on Lake Edward begun in April.

“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 CEO Roger Cagle said in an emailed statement.

Soco says it can operate in the World Heritage Site using environmentally sensitive techniques. The company has overseas operations in western Congo, the neighbouring Congo Republic and in Vietnam, with turnover of around $600 million a year.

Congo’s government has consistently supported Soco’s exploration activities while insisting on the government’s right to know how much oil is below Virunga’s surface before making a decision on whether to move into a production phase.

WWF and other conservation campaigners say that the park’s fragile ecosystem will be threatened by exploration and production work. They argue that Virunga is worth more to the Congolese people as a world heritage site than as a short-term source of oil.

“Today is a victory for our planet and for good practices in business,” Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, said in a statement.

Congo has a wealth of natural resources but its economy leans primarily on the mining sector, which contributed 14.5 percent of the national budget in 2013, according to Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo. Oil production remains low.

The vast, poverty-stricken central African state aims to raise oil output from just 25,000 barrels per day by exploiting reserves under its soil in the east and offshore in the west.

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

Emmanuel De Merode, the Virunga park’s Belgian director who was also publicly critical of Soco’s plans, was shot and seriously wounded last month by unknown gunmen.

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

Editing by Daniel Flynn/Mark Heinrich

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