A murky deal for the Congo as oil exploration threatens corruption and environmental damage - and London-based Soco International is first in the queue

Weeks after putting down a rebellion, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is preparing new oil laws that could open it up to vast corruption and put its most important nature reserve at risk

As peace looks within reach in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Western agencies including the IMF and Unesco fear the government there is about to push through new laws that will leave the famously corruption-prone country open to industrial-scale bribery and environmental damage in its potentially vast oil industry.

Concerns are rising that the proposed Oil Code will allow for a British company to begin exploring for oil in the Virunga national park, immortalised by the film Gorillas in the Mist. While the UK Foreign Office opposes any such activity, it is powerless to intervene.

The resource-rich DRC, already notorious for corruption in the way officials award lucrative mining contracts to foreign companies, has not yet had its potentially large oil reserves widely explored.

But Western oil companies led by London-based Soco International are keen to push into the country and start drilling.

The Congolese government is formulating a legal framework to govern the industry but its proposed Oil Code fails to insist on full, open tender processes for exploration licences as recommended by the UN, World Bank and other bodies. Without such transparency, it is feared corruption will flourish as it has in its many minerals contracts, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for a country with the lowest per capital GDP in the world, and where seven million children do not go to school. A recent report by Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel claimed five mining deals in the DRC alone were sold to Western firms for $1.36bn less than they worth, short-changing the country’s people.

Meanwhile, the draft code is also widely criticised for failing to safeguard the country’s Unesco-protected world heritage sites.

Unesco, the World Wildlife Fund, the British government, the European Union and the IMF all expressed their concerns about the planned bill earlier in the autumn, hoping to bring some influence to bear.

But revisions which emerged in recent days have merely served to make the code worse, critics say, adding a new clause effectively giving the state oil company, Cohydro, the right to operate “to the exclusion of oil regulation” – in other words, critics say, outside the new law.

This week sees a host of international bodies, industry figures and NGOs gather in the capital Kinshasa to discuss with ministers a similar code being drawn up for the mining industry. There has been no such open debate on the Oil Code, adding to concerns that the government is trying to rush it through the back door in order to speed up oil exploration projects.

The IMF and Unesco both told The Independent they were formulating responses to the disappointing new draft of the oil bill, while Britain’s Foreign Office said it was discussing the issue with its European Union partners in Kinshasa. The World Bank is also believed to have expressed concern.

The IMF’s Congo representative, Oscar Melhado, while saying the DRC’s oil riches could prove to be a route out of poverty for the country, argues that the draft law falls short of the need for transparency to ensure a fair share of oil revenues go to the Congolese people.

“It is important not to make the same mistakes made with the mining sector,” he said.

Guy Debonnet, chief of the special projects unit at Unesco’s Natural Heritage Centre added: “We are definitely worried. This code would make it easy for the council [of DRC ministers] to allow oil exploration in national parks and five world heritage centres. We have expressed concern to the DRC on this issue and explicitly asked it to reconsider… It is particularly concerning that the latest version of the code has made it even worse than before.”

The Congolese Hydrocarbons Minister, Crispin Atama Tabe, has refuted such concerns, claiming the proposed legislation will prevent corruption and ensure transparency in future oil dealings, saying: “In our code we’ve integrated the principle of the tender for all hydrocarbons rights purchases.” He added: “The ministry will also open a website, so that all the different contracts will be immediately and systematically published.”

However, a spokesman for anti-corruption group Global Witness disputes this: “So far, Congo’s oil riches have done little for the Congolese people. Time is running out to amend deeply flawed legislation that could lock in corruption for years to come,” he said. “MPs in Congo now have the chance to pass a transparent law that could yield vital revenue for the state. But if they don’t act fast, they risk institutionalising the secret deal-making that will enrich elites, bleed the economy and harm the environment.

The DRC has been racked by rebellion in recent years, often over the control of resources The DRC has been racked by rebellion in recent years, often over the control of resources (AFP)
“The end of the M23 rebellion could be an opportunity to break the cycle of resource-fuelled violence in the country’s east.”

London-headquartered Soco has been awarded the rights to explore for oil within the Virunga national park, the home of the rare mountain gorillas.

The park is a Unesco world heritage site and the British government, along with other countries and organisations like the World Bank and European Union, is opposed to any oil exploration there. French oil giant Total recently said it would not take up its licence to explore in the park due to the environmental sensitivities, as did Britain’s Dominion Petroleum. But Soco presses on despite widespread opposition.

Earlier this month, senior UK Foreign Office official Matt Baugh met representatives of Soco in London to stress in no uncertain terms the British government’s opposition to oil exploration in the park.

Soco, through its public relations representative, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontiers, pointed out that, while it was currently planning a one-month seismic study on Lake Edward, no drilling has been planned. It said it is conducting environmental studies prior to exploration operations, which “reflects the responsible and sensitive approach that Soco has adopted on these issues”. Its exploration license is not located near the mountain gorillas, it said, adding: “This is a region that has been the subject of conflict and violence for over 30 years and is in much need of economic stimulus. The park is on Unesco’s watch list for being below the standard expected by a world heritage site.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee