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Oil company, group agree on Congo park plan

By: JOHN HEILPRIN
June 11, 2014 Updated: June 11, 2014 at 2:45 am
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GENEVA (AP) — An agreement announced Wednesday between a London-based oil company and a wildlife protection group could prevent oil drilling in a national park in Africa where 200 endangered mountain gorillas live.

A joint statement by SOCO International PLC and Switzerland-based WWF said there will be no exploratory drilling in Congo's Virunga National Park, which is Africa's oldest, unless the government and the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO agree it would not threaten the park's world heritage status.

As part of the understanding, SOCO agreed to suspend exploration once it finishes seismic testing on Lake Edward and WWF pledged to drop a complaint that the oil company violates good-practice business guidelines set out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

SOCO denied allegations it had withheld information about the environmental risks of possibly drilling on a tract that overlaps with the park, which is best known for being home to about a quarter of the world's estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas.

The eastern Congo park is also the only place where all three African great apes can be seen, and the struggle over its resources has turned violent. In April, the chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, was attacked by three gunmen while driving through the park.

Soon after that attack, British filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel released a documentary entitled "Virunga" that depicted the desperate struggle by de Merode and the park rangers to protect the park and its wildlife from armed militias, rebels and the oil company.

The Congolese government authorized oil exploration in the park by London-based SOCO, following the discovery of oil in 2010. The World Wildlife Fund, based in Gland, Switzerland, protested the legality of that decision.

Virunga is a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO as "in danger."

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