Conservationists celebrate as oil company vows to leave Africa’s oldest national park

British oil company Soco International plc is to end its operations in the Virunga World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Following mediation with the UK government, Soco released a joint statement with environmental group WWF on 11 June, in which Soco committed “not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”

Anthony Field, campaigns specialist for WWF, said that it was a “huge success for conservation and for the three quarters of a million who signed the petition. Most importantly, it’s really good news for the park, and the wildlife and communities that rely on it.”

In a further development just six days afterwards, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee carried out a regular review of the Virunga site and elected to maintain the heritage status and urged the DRC to revoke all oil permits. They also reiterated their position that “oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status globally.”

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Field said that before UNESCO made this decision, “the door was still open,” but now, “there is no way Soco can go back.”

However, the volatile political situation in the DRC still means the park is at risk. “Day in day out, the park wardens put their lives on the line to protect the park,” said Field. “We really need to see stability and peace in the region.”

Virunga, he said was “the mother of all national parks in Africa and it holds a very special place in the heart of the Congolese people.”