THE Church Commissioners have backed a move to oust the chairman
of a British oil exploration company at the centre of international
concerns over drilling in the oldest national park in Africa.
The Commissioners have already threatened to dump the Church's
£2.8-million holding in SOCO International over its activities in
the World Heritage site at Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo (News, 13 February).
Last week, they joined a bid by several institutional
shareholders to block the re-election of the chairman, Rui de
Sousa, at the company's annual general meeting.
Mr de Sousa survived, but the move demonstrated the increasing
disquiet felt by many over the company's involvement in exploration
in a national park that is home to one of the last colonies of
endangered mountain gorillas.
The AGM was held shortly after an anti-corruption monitor,
Global Witness, produced cheques showing that SOCO had paid at
least £27,440 to a Congolese army officer in charge of the SOCO
survey team's security last year. The officer had already been
filmed trying to bribe a park warden, and his soldiers were
Shareholders were told that an independent review by the law
firm Clifford Chance found no evidence of intimidation, and that
the bribery allegations were "substantially inaccurate". It did not
interview the park's director, however, or any of the opponents or
Global Witness refused to co-operate, in order to protect its
sources, and questioned the review's independence and scope.
A member of Aviva's responsible investment team, which also
opposed the chairman's re-election, Stephanie Maier, called for
The Church Commissioners and Pensions Board have listed their
four demands: a wide-ranging and transparent independent enquiry of
SOCO's Virunga operations; confirmation that there are no
circumstances in which SOCO would conduct further activities in
Virunga, or any other World Heritage site; a commitment to comply
with the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights; and greater clarity
on the scope, extent, and timeframe of a review of the SOCO board
by the senior independent director.
"We remain deeply concerned about the way in which SOCO has
sought to address these issues," a statement said.