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.”

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?