SOCO vs. Virunga: Oil Exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Features, International

by Jamison Maeda

Gunshots ring out loudly from every direction as a car speeds down the road. A sign on the windshield says “Press” in French. Inside the car are a journalist and two others. The journalist, clearly panicked, watches people running in the street from the rebel army who havem taken over the town. “I don’t know if we’re doing the right thing” she says fearfully. Suddenly the car stops in the middle of the road to rescue a woman and a young man. The two jump in. Deafening gunfire continues as the car stops again and they all run down a narrow alley.  They huddle together beside a wall. The journalist has her phone to her ear. She is afraid.

This scene could be from this summer’s next blockbuster action movie, but unfortunately it is real. It’s a documentary called Virunga about a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The journalist is Melanie Gouby. 

After centuries of foreign exploitation and war, Congo reached a point of relative stability. But then in 2010, oil was discovered in Virunga National Park. Virunga is Congo’s oldest national park, and has been a World Heritage site since 1979. Drilling for oil there is against international law. However, in February of 2011, a convoy of vehicles from the British oil and gas conglomerate SOCO forced its way into the park.

Conservationists have warned that if oil is drilled in Virunga it would pose a serious ecological threat to Lake Albert and the 50,000 families who depend on it for fishing-their only industry. Oil exploitation in Virunga would also create even more instability in the region between the government and rebel armies. Already 130 park rangers have lost their lives protecting Virunga. Park Ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo attempted to stop SOCO agents from building an illegal structure inside the park. He was arrested, tortured, and held for 17 days without being charged. And after Park Director, Emanuel de Merode presented sensitive information about illegal oil exploration in Virunga, he was ambushed and shot multiple times. Fortunately Emanuel survived and returned to his post as Park Director shortly after.

Journalist Melanie Gouby recorded hidden camera video of her discussions with SOCO employee Julien Lechenault in Congo. On the video Julien stated that he believed the only way to bring stability to nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo would be to “recolonize these countries…There is no other solution” he says.

SOCO has suggested that exploiting the oil resources in Congo would benefit the Congolese people. But as we have seen with the foreign exploitation of Congo’s mineral wealth, the people received no benefit whatsoever. Congo still faces stark economic challenges. More than half of the people live below the poverty line, and over a third of the children suffer from malnutrition.

Melanie’s hidden camera footage contains a conversation with Julien Lechenault of SOCO and a SOCO subcontractor describing how the subcontracting company pays the rebel army for access to Virunga. Lechenault denies talking with rebels but the subcontractor, called John, is heard saying that contractors talk to the rebel soldiers everyday. The subcontractor is also heard to say that he doesn’t

believe that the Congolese people protecting the park actually care about the animals. Referring to the endangered mountain gorillas he is heard to say “It’s a monkey. Who gives a fuck about a fucking monkey?”

To answer John’s question, Park Ranger, Andre Bauma cares. He is a caretaker of orphaned mountain gorillas within the park. Andre says “…if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas. You must justify why you are on this earth. Gorillas justify why I am here. Ils sont ma vie.” (They are my life.)

According to Orlando von Einsiedel the director of the Virunga documentary, SOCO threatened a possible law suit if the film was released. Orlando says SOCO made similar threats to the film festivals who planned to screen his film, and even some journalists if they didn’t remove their reviews of the film from the internet. However, due to international pressure, including objections from the World Wildlife Fund, Richard Branson, Desmond Tutu, and the Church of England, SOCO has departed from Virunga and stated that they will no longer pursue oil exploration in the park.

But this is not the end. Virunga was designated as a World Heritage Site because it contains more mammal, bird, and reptile species than any other protected area of Africa. It is home to lions, hippos, elephants, and the last 800 mountain gorillas left in the world. To threaten one World Heritage Site leaves all World Heritage sites vulnerable, including Brú na Bóinne and Sceilg Mhichíl in Ireland.

We must continue to raise awareness about corporate exploitation and corruption. We have to support the heroic park rangers and conservationists who protect places like Virunga, and we must absolutely eliminate the ivory trade, mineral exploitation by foreign companies, and all other disgraceful industries that fuel the instability of African countries.

For more information about Virunga, check out http://virungamovie.com