British oil giant accused of bribery in tussle over Africa’s oldest national park

Allegations over Soco’s lobbying to explore in Unesco protected park in DR Congo

Deputy Business editor

Contractors and agents working on behalf of a major London-based oil company paid bribes to officials and rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo in their bid to explore for oil in Africa’s oldest national park, according to anti-corruption activists.

Soco International has been conducting studies on whether it is feasible to drill for oil in Lake Edward in Virunga, the Unesco world heritage site made famous by Dian Fossey and the movie Gorillas in the Mist.

In April, the park’s head, Emmanuel de Merode was shot and seriously injured by unknown assailants.

There is no suggestion Soco was involved and the company was quick to condemn  the attack.

Plans to explore for oil there have met fierce resistance from environmental groups who fear the impact on rare animals and local fishing communities.

Undercover investigators making a documentary in conjunction with the non-governmental organisation Global Witness (GW) filmed an alleged Soco ally offering to pay a senior park ranger $3,000 (£1,823) – a year and a half’s wages – to spy on  Mr de Merode.

The ranger was filmed receiving an envelope containing $50 as a man GW says was a Soco security contractor tells him: “just to say thank you”.

Soco has denied any knowledge of the payment and said it “does not in any way condone his actions”.

“Bribes to park rangers have never been nor will ever be sanctioned by Soco,” the company has said.

The investigation – some of which is featured in the forthcoming independent documentary Virunga – also showed locals claimed to be working on Soco’s behalf handing out envelopes of cash to villagers to encourage them to hold a demonstration in favour of the oil company.

A company official in the country is filmed later admitting it funded the demo.

Meanwhile, a top official in the parks authority, whom the report says lobbied on behalf of Soco, is filmed offering cash to rangers in return for cooperation on efforts to get drilling approved.

He says those working on the “inside team… will get money, money, money”. 

But he threatens if rangers object to oil exploration: “You will be fired. ”.

The recordings also see Soco field operations supervisor Julien Lechenault discuss paying rebel groups.

Mr Lechenault says: “You’ve got to give them money to be able to travel through  the area.”

Later, he says: “We don’t talk to these people. That’s why we subcontract that shit.”

Soco says “at no time has any contract between Soco or its security contractors with any Congolese rebel groups been instigated by Soco or its security contractors.”

It adds that it complies with the best business practices and code of ethics.

The company recently halted exploration in the park.Soco has stressed that it is keen to be sensitive to the biodiversity of the Virunga, although Mr Lechenault is taped saying: “It’s just a fucking mine, this park.” 

Soco told GW he no longer works for the company and argued it is being unfairly blamed for the alleged activities of people not employed or contracted by the company.

In a statement last night, it said: “Soco is aware of a report due to be published by Global Witness which contains a number of allegations against our company. We have not been provided with a copy. We wrote to GW on 4 June and requested that they provide Soco with any evidence they had to support their allegations as any breach of our code of business conduct and ethics would lead to immediate action by Soco. GW refused and continues to refuse to provide any evidence to the company to support their allegations.

“Whilst we take allegations of this nature seriously it is only reasonable to expect relevant evidence to be provided so we can investigate.”

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