Extra income for a bankrupt DRC, or an attack on vulnerable nature? The country’s government sees the former and the opposition and conservationists as the other.
Last month, President Felix Tshisekedi announced the auction of 30 oil and gas concessions. It concerns millions of hectares, some of which are located in nature reserves. Foreign Minister Christoph Lutendola tried last week to calm things down. In his words, the government will make sure that “no company comes to us to exploit and destroy the environment.”
Oil Minister Didier Bodembo Ntobwanga told Bloomberg financial news agency that the deal would bring the Congolese government about 638 billion euros. The money, which President Tshisekedi says is for health care, education and road construction, which should boost development in the central African country. According to the World Bank, most of the population lives below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.
Environmentalists, opposition members and traditional leaders are outraged by the Tshisekedi auction. Many see it as the latest way for a corrupt government to enrich itself at the expense of the nature and population of the Congo. They believe that the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the east of the country are not only in danger, but also a million hectares of peatlands, which store carbon and thus fight climate change.
“The impact on the environment would be catastrophic,” Irene Wabiwa of Greenpeace said by phone from the capital, Kinshasa. More than 11 million hectares of rainforest are for sale, you know, but oil exploitation also requires pipelines. Primitive forests and animal species that can only be found in the Congo will have to give way to infrastructure.
“A very destructive plan that could have very disastrous consequences for the local environment and the global climate,” says Dutch ecologist Bart Krzy. As a doctoral student at the University of Leeds, he studied the world’s largest tropical swamp in the Congo Basin. There are approximately 17 million hectares of peat forest there, four times the area of the Netherlands, where nearly 30 billion tons of carbon are stored. This is somewhat equivalent to three years of global fossil fuel emissions.”
Together with Congolese and English scholars, Crazy mapped the peat region, which also extends over neighboring Congo-Brazzaville. The oil plots for sale overlap with one million hectares of peatland, Crazy says. Peat is an important weapon in the fight against climate change. When the peat and rainforests above are destroyed, as much carbon is released into the atmosphere as 14 billion barrels of oil are consumed. “This is equivalent to nearly seventy years of the current Dutch company2emissions. “
Tshisekedi denies that the auction goes against the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which countries struck agreements to combat global warming. Critics promise that he will use the latest technology to prevent damage to nature.
It is reported that many international and national companies are interested in the auction. They are now preparing their applications, said Robert Kahinga, an advisor to the Minister of Gas and Oil and head of the tender committee. It is still too early in the process – which will take six months – to decide which oil and gas companies will submit a bid. “We cannot announce the names at this time,” Kahenga said. But he promises: “There will be no loss of biodiversity and natural resources.” The Congolese state will request environmental impact studies from interested companies, and moreover, Kahinga says, the government can “pay petrodollars for a fearsome army that better protects gorillas from poachers.”
Wabiwa of Greenpeace is suspicious. “No information about the new technology the government is talking about has been announced.” Either way, oil companies have to build roads and cut trees, she says. This threatens protected animals such as forest elephants, bonobos and pygmy crocodiles.
It is not only international organizations that are protesting. “My village and I are against the sale of oil lumps,” said Valentin Ngobo, the village chief in Lukulama, an indigenous community in the peat-rich northwestern province of Equateur. Here villagers in the forest have been hunting and fishing, making honey and using plants for traditional medicines for generations. Engupu: “Our survival depends entirely on the forest. If it is destroyed, our lives are also threatened.”
People in the east of the conflict-stricken country are also concerned about the auction in Kinshasa. Virunga Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in North Kivu Province. This is where the largest number of mountain gorillas in the world lives, and it is an endangered species. A little further north is Lake Albert, a wetland shared with neighboring Uganda, which is home to hippos and hundreds of bird and reptile species. Oil concessions are for sale here, too.
“We are sounding the alarm because we do not want to destroy our biodiversity,” said Justin Ben Siro, 34, from the small town of Rutshuru on the outskirts of Virunga. He does not think that the Congolese people will benefit from the auction. He knows that “the government promises economic growth, employment, and increased income,” but experience in the exploitation of cobalt, diamonds and gold shows otherwise. “The population is still very, very poor.”
Like Ciro, many – in the western province of Equateur, in Kinshasa and in the east of the country – fear that oil and gas revenues will not flow to ordinary Congolese through public investment. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
“The money from these auctions and transactions will not end up in the treasury, but in the pockets of individuals for election campaigns,” said Jimmy Monjuric Ofoy, a lawyer from the northeastern city of Bunia who specializes in managing natural resources. He wants the international community to invite investors not to participate in the auction. According to him, the sale of oil and gas concessions violates conservation laws that prohibit exploitation in reserves.
“The population has no guarantee that the money will develop the economy,” said Professor Kennedy Kihangi Bindu of the Free University of the Great Lakes States in Goma, near Virunga. A toxic mix of poor management, highly volatile oil prices, and inappropriate environmental legislation stand in their way. “The communities here have never seen the positive effects of oil exploitation,” says the environmental law scholar. According to him, the government should postpone the auction and study the environmental impact more closely: “Just because Europeans destroyed and developed their lands as a result, does not mean that we should do the same.”
According to government adviser Kahinga, the fuss about the sale is unnecessary: ”After all, the concessions will benefit the people of Congo just as the money from the mines.”
Correction (Wednesday, August 17th): An earlier version of this article stated that the Congo Basin is the largest swamp in the world. This is not true and has been corrected above; It is the largest tropical swamp.
A version of this article also appeared in the August 16, 2022 newspaper