June 14, 2015

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC of CONGO: SOCO British Oil Company Paid Large Sums To Congolese Army Officer In Congo, Nature Reserve, Virunga National Park

The New York Times
written by Marc Santora
Tuesday June 9, 2015

NAIROBI, Kenya — When a British oil company began prospecting for oil in Africa’s oldest national park, drawing worldwide concern and inspiring an Oscar-nominated documentary last year, the company was adamant in denying any wrongdoing.

Though soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo may have engaged in a campaign of intimidation and coercion against nearby residents who are opposed to drilling in the park, the company said it could not be held responsible for their actions.

"We can't tell the army to go and kiss off," Roger Cagle, the deputy chief executive director of the oil company, SOCO International, told The Telegraph newspaper in Britain. He said that the soldiers had been assigned by the Congolese government to keep the company safe.

But according to documents obtained by Global Witness, an advocacy group, SOCO appears to have paid tens of thousands of dollars to a Congolese Army Officer who has been accused of leading a brutal campaign against those objecting to the company's oil exploration in the nature reserve, Virunga National Park.

Over the course of two weeks during the spring of 2014, according to the documents, the officer, Maj. Burimba Feruzi, received at least $42,250 in payments from a local bank account associated with SOCO.

That is the equivalent of 30 years of salary for the army officer, according to Global Witness.

Copies of the checks made out to Major Feruzi, who is no longer with the army, list the account’s name as “SOCO EXPL ET PROD BLOC V / GOMA,” an apparent reference to Goma, the city just south of the park in Congo.

Global Witness, which advocates transparency in mining, logging and energy, said it had obtained four separate checks made out to Major Feruzi totalling $15,600. The group said it had also obtained a copy of Mr. Feruzi’s handwritten and signed receipt for another $26,650, dated April 30, 2014.

“These documents show that despite SOCO’s repeated denials, the company has paid tens of thousands of dollars to an army officer accused of bribing and intimidating those trying to stop oil exploration in one of Africa’s natural treasures,” said Nathaniel Dyer, head of the Congo team at Global Witness. “These payments may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

The group called for the British and American authorities to investigate the company’s activities in eastern Congo.

In a statement, the company said that it had never denied paying for the work of the Congolese Army in “providing a security escort.”

“We strongly refute any suggestion that this funding was in any way improper or connected with alleged acts of intimidation or violence,” the company said, noting that the payments were being investigated internally.

“The soldiers assigned to SOCO’s security escort were always under the full command and control of the D.R.C. army,” the company said.

The battle over the fate of Virunga offers a chilling look at how the tug of war between the forces of economic development and environmental preservation can turn deadly.

Villagers living near the park who opposed SOCO’s operations have been beaten by government soldiers. Park rangers have come under repeated threat, one even being kidnapped after opposing the construction of a cellphone tower in the park.

The park’s director, a Belgian prince, was shot and wounded shortly after delivering a secret report to state prosecutors on the company’s activities. A Human Rights Watch researcher, Ida Sawyer, was quoted as saying in The Telegraph last year that two fishermen who opposed SOCO’s presence were killed by soldiers connected to the company’s security.

In the Oscar-nominated documentary, simply called “Virunga,” Major Feruzi was captured on undercover surveillance video offering a $3,000 bribe to a senior park ranger.

The former officer could not be reached for comment.

Stretching across over 3,000 square miles, Virunga became the first national park in Africa in 1925. Unlike national parks in the United States, Virunga is closed to all human activity not associated with scientific study. In 1979, the park was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are vast savannahs, glaciers and two active volcanoes in the park, home to one of the few remaining enclaves of endangered mountain gorillas.

Virunga’s Lake Edward is also believed to contain oil beneath its waters. In recent years, new technology has made it possible to tap into those resources. In 2010, SOCO was granted permission by the Congolese government to explore a block of land, part of which included Lake Edward inside the park.

Congo’s prime minister, Augustin Matata Ponyo, told the BBC in March that despite the controversy, the country would not simply forsake a possible economic boon.

“The necessity is to find a middle ground to see how to preserve nature but also to gain profit from resources so that the communities living there can see their living conditions get better,” Mr. Ponyo said.

Unesco’s World Heritage Committee is scheduled hold its annual meeting at the end of the month and will seek to make clear what it considers the dangers of oil extraction.

“It is recommended that the committee reiterate its established position that oil exploration or exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage status, which is supported by the commitments made by industry leaders such as Shell and Total not to undertake such activities within World Heritage properties,” according to a working document on the Unesco website.

SOCO has said it is no longer active in the park, having completed an initial survey. The company has said it will abide by all decisions of the Congolese government and Unesco regarding the park.

But Joanna Natasegara, the producer of Virunga, said that the newly released documents showed that there were still serious questions about SOCO’s behavior.

And, she said, the battle over one of the world’s great natural wonders continues.

“In terms of the danger to the rangers and the activists,” she said, “the situation in Virunga is as delicate as it ever was.”

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