Church of England may sell £3m stake in mining firm over fears for gorilla haven
Move follows film backed by Leonardo DiCaprio and pleas by environmentalists to protect Congo’s Virunga park
Saturday 7 February 2015 20.05 GMT
The Church of England is considering withdrawing its investment in a controversial British mining firm whose operations in a war-torn region of Africa have alarmed both human rights groups and environmentalists.
The church – led by archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a former oil executive – has said that it may sell its near £3m stake in Soco International unless it receives a number of reassurances from the company, whose decision to carry out a seismic survey in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo features in an acclaimed documentary backed by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Soco, which is valued at almost £1bn on the London Stock Exchange, is adamant that it does not operate in the mountainous Mikeno sector of the park, which is home to around half of the world’s 950 mountain gorillas. In a statement on its website, it explains “that it will never seek to have operations in the mountain gorilla habitat, the Virunga volcanoes or the Virunga equatorial rainforest, and this remains the company’s position”.
Last year the company announced that it was pulling out of Virunga following discussions with the World Wildlife Fund. The move came after pressure from the British government, Unesco and high-profile individuals, including Sir Richard Branson. The decision was presented as a coup for the environmental lobby. However, Soco made the announcement only after it had finished its survey. And despite the move there are fears that it may yet resume operations in the park.
Now Virunga, a Netflix film shortlisted for best documentary at this year’s Oscars and Baftas, has heaped pressure on the company to clarify its intentions. The movie’s website carries a statement explaining: “We are asking Soco to make a written commitment to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government to never again work within Virunga national park’s existing borders.”
The Church of England has become so concerned by Soco’s position on Virunga – partly in response to concerns raised in the film – that it is threatening to divest its stake if the company fails to provide it with reassurances in the near future.
In a statement issued to the Observer, the church said: “Following board-level engagement between the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) and Soco International plc, the EIAG has raised serious concerns about the company’s determination to satisfactorily address, in an open and transparent manner, allegations concerning the operations of Soco in and around the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Joanna Natasegara, the film’s producer, said she was delighted with the way in which the film had focused attention on what was happening in the park: “We always hoped the film would bring the story of Virunga to the fore. We are truly excited that the Church of England has responded in this way.”
It is highly unusual for the church to proactively reveal its investments, and almost unheard of for it to announce that it may sell a stake due to ethical concerns. Its decision to go public highlights its mounting frustration following 18 months of talks with Soco during which it sought reassurances regarding the company’s anti-corruption policies, human rights commitments and environmental obligations.
The church now wants a “transparent independent inquiry of Soco’s operations in and around” the park, and an “amendment of the previously issued statement agreed between Soco and WWF … so that there are without exception no circumstances in which Soco would conduct further exploration or production activities in the Virunga national park”.
Emmanuel de Mérode, director of the national park, who was seriously injured when he was shot during an ambush last year, applauded the church’s stance: “The church has worked very hard to understand exactly what is happening. They have taken direct responsibility to fully inform themselves on what’s been happening in Virunga. We think that is an extremely responsible position for a major investor to take.”
Soco claims it is authorised by the Congolese government to explore for oil in the park, but De Mérode disputes this. “They were given a concession called Block 5, but that concession is much bigger than the national park,” he said. “The fact is, in the initial agreement signed in 2007, it specifically says they have to respect conservation laws. They chose to go in the park, and that decision is illegal. Just because they were given a concession doesn’t mean they can do what they want.”
Soco said it did not comment on investors or investors’ decisions.