Soldiers guarding a British company that is searching for oil in Africa’s oldest national park are believed to have killed two opponents of the controversial project, The Telegraph has discovered.
The fishermen were both beaten to death after apparently criticising Soco International’s activities in Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo, villagers told a journalist who visited the remote fishing community of Nyakakoma where Soco has been based since 2011.
Their claims, recorded in today’s Telegraph magazine, were later corroborated by an investigator from Human Rights Watch. Ida Sawyer, HRW’s senior Congo researcher, said: “Many other fishermen, activists and park rangers have been badly beaten, threatened and intimidated after opposing (Soco’s) work in the park. It is shocking and completely unacceptable that park residents risk being killed when they peacefully express their views.”
The park authorities have launched a formal investigation.
Roger Cagle, Soco’s deputy chief executive, denied any responsibility for the Congolese soldiers’ actions. “They’re not associated with Soco. They’re assigned to us. We can’t tell the army to go and kiss off,” he said during an interview in Soco’s Mayfair headquarters.
Soco won a licence to explore for oil in Virunga in 2006. That licence was ratified by presidential decree in 2010. But Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga’s Belgian-born director, an array of environmental and human rights NGOs, Unesco and even the British government have challenged the legality of Soco’s operations. They contend that oil drilling would threaten not only a highly-protected environment but the fragile peace of a former war zone and conservation efforts throughout the DRC. At least five big shareholders have raised concerns with Soco or sold their investments.
Cagle called the allegations against his company “malicious lies” and insisted that Soco forbade any form of illegal activity by its employees or contractors. He said the company had done its best to investigate the charges, but those making them offered no proof or specifics.
Soco recently completed its seismic tests and is withdrawing from Virunga. In June it announced that would not return to drill without an agreement between the DRC government and Unesco.