Commissioners' concerns about drilling firm increase

19 June 2015

iSTOCK

Habitat: Virunga National Park is home to one of the last colonies of mountain gorillas 

Habitat: Virunga National Park is home to one of the last colonies of mountain gorillas 

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 harassing opponents.

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 alleged victims.

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 "full disclosure".

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.

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