Soco International, an oil company based in the United Kingdom, was forced to cease its exploratory operations in an oil block granted to it by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), amidst a scandal involving bribery and intimidation of Congolese citizens.
The scandal brought to light in a Netflix documentary and a brave British journalist, Mélanie Gouby, shows just how far some oil companies will go for the crude.
The 3,000 square miles Virunga National Park in DRC is said to be Africa’s oldest national park, and the most biodiverse zone, not just in DRC but on the continent. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had designated the park a World Heritage Site for its rich scientific significance to humanity’s collective interest.
But even though the park holds a beloved endangered species, the Mountain Gorilla, Soco and another oil company, Total, were awarded the rights to explore for oil in about 85 percent of the park in 2007.
The Congolese Government awarded the concession against the warning of the UN, who pleaded that World Heritage Sites are protected by international treaties.
After the award gained international media attention, the French multinational Total, said that it would cease its operations in the park, but Soco didn’t.
Soco had said that the ‘Block V’ which it was granted did not pose any direct threat to the safety of the Mountain Gorillas. Yet, several publications have reported that that area is the most biodiverse zone in the park.
In 2014, an international non-governmental organization (NGO), Global Witness, released proof that got Soco embroiled in a bribery scandal. The evidence involved a paper trail and other details that armed rebels had resisted the company’s operations were paid off. The evidence also exposed how the oil company benefited from fear and violence fostered by State military forces in the Eastern Congo.
The New York Times reported that villages who opposed the project had been beaten by Government soldiers. It became clear that the oil company was using state forces to intimidate dissidents as it sought access to Virunga for oil exploration.
Soco paid off US$42,250 to a Congolese military officer Major Burimbi Feruzi who is said to have tried to bribe dissidents, the Global Witness stated. It is said that that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Feruzi was caught on camera in the filming of an Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, offering a $3,000 bribe to a senior park ranger. The company had denied paying him before the exposure was made.
Four years ago, Soco told The Guardian that it never denied funding the State’s army as it provided a security escort for the safety of its staff and contractors as they conducted seismic operations in the biodiverse park.
It stated “However, we strongly refute any suggestion that this funding was in any way improper or connected with alleged acts of intimidation or violence.”
In response to questions about the cheques and receipts published, Soco deputy Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Roger Cagle, had told Global Witness that Feruzi had been assigned to Soco following a requirement to have a military liaison in the region.
After its pay-off of the military officer was exposed, Soco had announced that it finished its seismic studies in the area. But it had not immediately relinquished its right to the block.
After Soco and other oil companies were asked by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Global Witness to make a clear commitment not to explore nor exploit oil and gas in any world heritage site, the company made a joint decree with the WWF that it would not drill without the permission of UNESCO and the Congolese Government.
That commitment was tepid, as the company reportedly assured the Congolese Government that it had not pulled out. Reports had been made that the company was hoping for the government to redraw the boundaries of the park.
The company appears to have felt it necessary to rebrand itself. If ‘Soco International’ is searched on Google, the results would show Soco’s new name, Pharos Energy.
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