The officials recognized that Virunga is a critical economic driver for eastern DRC, and has the potential to spur further sustainable development in the region. Piebalgs and Labille noted, however, that the site's nature is particularly sensitive, and that oil production would be a major risk.
During their mission, the men met with representatives of civil society organizations who reported that threats have been made against some nearby residents who oppose oil exploitation in Africa's oldest national park.
Soco International PLC may start seismic tests in Virunga's Lake Edward as early as this month, and plans to limit access to fishermen during testing. An independent economic analysis of the park commissioned by WWF found that 50,000 people depend on the lake for jobs, food and freshwater.
In their statement, Piebalgs and Labille triggered an urgent call to action for all relevant authorities and company shareholders to do their utmost to ensure that Soco upholds corporate social responsibility standards and the provisions of international treaties, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.
UNESCO maintains that oil exploitation is incompatible with World Heritage Status and has called for the cancellation of all Virunga oil permits. The UK foreign office and the EU, Belgian and German parliaments have previously voiced disapproval of Soco's exploration in Virunga.