We sat down with Zach Abraham from WWF to discuss the latest strategy around preventing oil company SOCO International from exploration in Virunga National Park, a pristine home to mountain gorillas in Democratic Republic of the Congo. What makes this effort particularly noteworthy is use of new tactics by WWF to make their case. WWF is signaling that some conservation lines will not be crossed, and they are willing to go to extraordinary new lengths to make that point.
Sustainability: Zach, could you tell us a bit about who you are and your role in this project?
Zach Abraham: I’m a conservation director here at WWF International. I was brought in to help fight some of our conservation battles around some of the most precious remaining ecosystems on the planet. My focus is on the nexus between people and the environment, and how these special places are critically important both for the ecosystems they preserve and the people, which in some cases is all of us, who are connected with them. We need to be better advocates for people and places, and Virunga is arguably one of the most special of these special places.
Sustainability: Looking at Virunga in particular, could you talk a bit more about what is at stake here?
Zach: This is one of the icons of conservation. It’s Africa’s first national park. It’s the “Mother Park” of Africa. If this place falls because of multinational oil interests, it would set a terrible precedent that nothing is sacred. This is a site that is protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention; it is considered to be one of the most biodiverse parks in the entire world, this is a place that more than 50,000 local community members need for their survival, and a company is getting ready to exploit it. UNESCO has repeatedly called for the cancellation of oil permits in this park. European governments have repeatedly called for protection of the park. If we can’t protect this place, we can’t protect anyplace.
Sustainability: Thanks Zach. Tell me a bit more about the WWF approach.
Zach: WWF historically has focused on four key ideas. One, that we need to be extremely knowledgeable about our work; two, that we need to be driven by solutions; three, we need to be determined to deliver positive conservation outcomes; and finally four, we need to fully engage with affected communities. In this approach, we have identified some lines that we believe just cannot be crossed. Some places are simply too valuable, and must be defended at all costs. And this is what Virunga stands for to us. This is the signal we are sending. When the unacceptable happens, WWF will stand up and fight the unacceptable.
Sustainability: I’d like to dig into the aspects of legal protection in place around Virunga. You’ve said that it is protected by both national and international law and that WWF is pursuing a further protection through the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
Zach: With international treaties like the UNESCO convention, it’s up to the governments who sign up to respect what they have committed to doing. If they don’t live up the commitments required for World Heritage Sites, for example, there is no penalty other than the loss of the recognition of the site, and the associated reputational damage. In 2011, the DRC government reaffirmed its commitment to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, and pledged to better manage the country’s parks. Right now, there are five World Heritage Sites in DRC, and all five are on the “in Danger” list, with Virunga facing the biggest threat. In DRC, there are laws to protect these areas from damaging activities like oil extraction. Despite this, the country has allocated oil concessions covering 85% of Virunga National Park. What SOCO is doing in its Virunga concession is exploiting a legal loophole that allows for a permit to be granted for scientific activities. Alarmingly, DRC has also tried to push through legislation that would eliminate the protections parks currently have, and allow them to be opened up for most any industrial use. Fortunately this legislation has failed to pass twice due to strong opposition in the country. So far, the voice of conservation has been winning out over the voice of exploitation, led by the people of the DRC. And I can’t stress this enough, the fight for Virunga would be going nowhere if it was not being led and fully supported by civil society in DRC.
Sustainability: Could you talk about the use of the OECD complaint process in this case?
Zach: OECD complaints are not legally-binding like a court case, but the process is followed closely by the 45 governments that adhere to the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Those countries have pledged that they will do everything in their power to ensure that companies based in their territories operate responsibly, whether at home or abroad. That means following laws, respecting community and workers’ rights, protecting the environment and much more. What our complaint through the OECD signals is that we are moving beyond the format of pledges, and “likes”, and “shares” as ways to fight against injustice. We are taking a novel, solutions-driven approach to find positive outcomes for communities put at risk. Through the evidence put forward in our complaint, we are really trying to give a voice to the voiceless. Petitions are wonderful for mobilizing public support, but governments need more than that. They need the tools and mechanisms for change.
Sustainability: So this is a watershed event?
Zach: Absolutely. Our complaint has been able to bridge the gap between the communities that oppose this project and the global players that have the ability to do something about it. It’s also about stopping the exportation of bad development. This kind of environmentally insensitive activity would never be allowed in England, where SOCO is headquartered. We really should focus on the positive drivers of development. Virunga National Park has the potential of being a billion dollar per year asset for its communities.
Sustainability: Tell us more about the new paradigm. How should legal and financial risk managers understand this new activism? Is traditional economic development in environmentally sensitive areas going to become more expensive?
Zach: Yes. And I think it’s well illustrated with the case of Total SA of France. Total recently made the commitment to not explore for oil in Virunga National Park, and also made a global commitment to stay out of all World Heritage Sites. The company made this decision because the risks outweigh the benefits.
Sustainability: So would you say that Total has set a best practice here?
Zach: I wouldn’t go that far. I would say that Total has decided to respect the commitment that its home government and DRC have both made under the World Heritage Convention. Shell in 2003 made a similar commitment. We would like other firms to follow in these footsteps, and commit to no development in all existing and future World Heritage Sites.
Sustainability. SOCO has stated that they don’t intend to drill in the park after their seismic surveys. What do you think?
Zach: I challenge that. Why continue activities in the park? Why not state a commitment never to drill in response to our OECD complaint? Why not end the reputational damage it is incurring? Everything we have seen on the ground suggests SOCO is intent on oil exploitation there.
Sustainability: So after the international and national legal frameworks, OECD doesn’t have enforcement powers, so why OECD?
Zach: The OECD strategy is about raising the issue to the level of signatory governments so that they are aware and can observe what corporations are doing that reside in their jurisdictions. Forty-five national governments have committed to respect and implement OECD guidelines with their multinational enterprises. OECD is a critical tool to take us to the next level in advocating for Virunga and the community groups that depend on it. Our OECD complaint should also raise the issue to investors. Do shareholders really want to invest in companies that ignore the UNESCO convention and participate in the violation of international treaties? Breaches of OECD guidelines should be a red flag for investors.
Sustainability: Just to be clear, the OECD commitment is between the countries and the OECD, not between the OECD and the companies in the countries. Is that correct?
Zach: Yes. This is about creating awareness and encouraging countries to hold companies accountable. WWF is the largest organization to ever file an OECD complaint. And this is not the end of our use of this tool, we intend to try to strengthen the accessibility and enforcement aspects of the OECD process as well. We will share our lessons learned with other NGOs and advocacy groups on how this tool can be used.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted on March 3, 2014]