The exploration and exploitation of oil is incompatible with the World Heritage Site status. To allow drilling for oil wells legally, the government will have to declassify parts of the park, or Virunga as a whole.
The Democratic Republic of Congo's prime minister has said that his government wants to find a way to explore for oil in the Virunga national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and will engage in negotiations with the UN body to "explore judiciously".
Virunga, Africa's oldest and most biodiverse park, has been on the list of 'World Heritage in danger' since 1994, as two decades of armed conflict and intense poaching by militias has taken its toll on the park's ecosystem.
In 2007, the Congolese ministry of hydrocarbons awarded two oil concessions straddling Virunga's boundaries to the French major Total, as well as Soco International, a British oil company registered on the London Stock Exchange.
While Total quickly agreed to never explore within the current limits of the park - even in the event of a boundaries change - Soco has carried out exploratory activities in Virunga, concluding a seismic study in July 2014.
The company said it will hand over the results of the seismic survey to the Congolese government in coming months. It is based on these results that the DRC will decide whether to explore further.
Oil exploration 'incompatible' with World Heritage designation
Famous for its mountain gorillas, among the last ones on the planet, Virunga is home to dozens of endangered species, mainly found in and around Lake Edward, the area where Soco has been exploring.
According to the UNESCO convention, the exploration and exploitation of oil is incompatible with the World Heritage Site status. To allow drilling for oil wells legally, the government will have to declassify parts of the park, or Virunga as a whole.
"It would not be a minor modification of the park limits. It would be a major modification that would impair the universal value of the park", said Leila Maziz, the coordinator for the Congo Basin projects at UNESCO. She added that UNESCO has not received an official request from the Congolese government at this stage.
In its annual report issued last week, Soco stated that it will not be part of the discussions between the UN body and the government. However, prime minister Augustin Matata Ponyo told the BBC that "Soco had brought the issue of the boundary to the government's attention."
Under international pressure following a global campaign by WWF and the documentary Virunga, Soco issued a statement that it would not seek to explore further in the park "unless Unesco and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its world heritage status."
Following that statement in June 2014, Soco's deputy chief executive Roger Cagle told the Times that, nevertheless, DRC could apply for a boundary change.
An 'alarming' development
In an official letter seen by the Guardian, Matata Ponyo wrote that his government has been considering boundary change since July 2014, following the UNESCO summit.
"It is alarming that the Congolese prime minister says that Soco has raised the issue of Virunga's boundary with the government and that the government appears to be moving towards declassifying some of the park", Dyer said.
A spokeswoman for Soco said: "Soco has publicly stated that it has not and will not lobby the DRC government to redraw the boundaries of the Virunga national park."
As part of its report, Soco also announced that it has hired the legal firm Clifford Chance to carry out an independent investigation into the allegations brought forward by the documentary 'Virunga', as well as Human Rights Watch and Global Witness.
In February, the Church of England threatened to sell its £3m share in Soco, over concerns relating to the company's behaviour in DRC.
This article was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here by kind permission via the Guardian Environment Network.