By Pete Jones
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Conservation group WWF accused Britain's Soco International of breaching guidelines on responsible business by exploring for oil in Congo's Virunga park, a last refuge for the region's mountain gorillas, and said the work must stop.
The government and Soco, which denies the allegations, want to explore the national park's potential to generate oil revenues for one of the world's poorest nations.
WWF and other conservation groups insist the Virunga would best benefit Congo by being left untouched.
The WWF said it had filed a complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a 34-nation club which has guidelines for businesses to work responsibly.
WWF accused Soco of failing to take proper account of the need to shield the environment, unduly limiting the government's ability to protect the environment and failing to provide the public with information on the impact of its activities.
"The only way for Soco to come into compliance with the OECD guidelines is for the company to end all exploration in Virunga for good," Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director of Conservation at WWF International, said in a statement.
Soco, which has operations in western Congo, Vietnam and Congo Republic and turnover of around $600 million a year, denies the allegations. It says its exploration fully complies with national and international laws.
"We expect SOCO to be a positive presence in North Kivu," deputy chief executive Roger Cagle told Reuters, referring to the region the park is in.
"Should the DRC government determine that our involvement is no longer legal then we will, of course, discontinue all activities," he added, saying it welcomed OECD scrutiny.
The OECD cannot enforce its guidelines, but each member country has officials that mediate on disputes. In this case, the British national contact point will be involved. Britain has earlier protested against exploration in Virunga.
TOURISM VERSUS OIL
The government is keen to see how much oil lies under the park and if new reserves could boost oil revenues from the current $325 million in the $8 billion annual budget.
Some long-suffering locals see oil as a good prospect.
"We've been living in misery for a long time," said Jean Claude Bambanze, president of a civil society group in Ruthsuru.
"Look at tourism. It has done nothing to help the population. If we do have oil that would be a real chance, it could provide work and even boost the national economy."
Reverend Kakule Molo in Goma, North Kivu's capital, said there were mixed feelings. "On one side they want these operations because they bring economic opportunities but on the other there is the damage it can bring," he said.
Any attempt to carry out seismic surveying could also put Soco and the government on a collision course with UNESCO, which prohibits such activities in World Heritage sites.
Environment Minister Bavon N'sa Mputu Elima said donors who want to protect Virunga will have to help Congo.
"We want to say to our partners 'There you are, we've prioritized conservation ... but in exchange, what can we expect from the international community?'" he told journalists.
A WWF-commissioned study said the park could contribute $48.9 million annually to the economy, climbing to $1.1 billion per year if a tourism sector can be established there.
(Additional Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Patrick Lannin)