POST Online Media Lite Edition


People in Congo against oil: We'll keep our forests, you keep your dollars

Christian Fernsby |
The giant oil and gas auction launched in July 2022 by the Democratic Republic of Congo was done without the knowledge - much less consent - of local communities, who vow to resist it.

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A report by Greenpeace Africa, 350, Rainforest Rescue, and the Congolese NGOs Dynamique Pole, Innovation pour le développement et la protection de l'environnement (IDPE), Youth Movement for the Protection of the Environment (MJPE) and Réseau des éducateurs du développement durable (REDD) details these findings as the DRC prepares to host the PreCOP27 climate conference in Kinshasa in three days.

"This report demonstrates how the DRC oil and gas auction not only threatens the global climate and biodiversity, but exposes Congolese people to the disease, conflict, poverty, and corruption that inevitably come with the curse of oil," said Irène Wabiwa Betoko, Greenpeace Africa's International Project Lead for the Congo Basin forest.

On the 28th of July 2022, the DRC launched an auction of 30 oil and gas blocks, covering a gigantic 277,954 square kilometres, an area larger than the whole of Ghana or the United Kingdom. Three of these overlap peatlands and at least 13 overlap protected areas, including Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The report is a first effort to present the view of some of the local communities living on auctioned lands, and likely to suffer the most direct consequences of potential oil exploration and subsequent drilling.

"The government is neglecting its own people. It acts as if these forests were empty, that they're without villages, without animals, it's heartbreaking," a resident of the village of Lukolela told us. Others repeatedly declared: "(if this is) something for the good of the population, (it) would not have been done in secret." For their security, full names and locations of people interviewed will not be disclosed.

On the eve of the auction, Greenpeace Africa conducted two field missions to dozens of communities in four prospective oil blocks covering about 100,000 square kilometres, equal to about 1,000 times the size of Paris.

None of the villages visited in Equateur and Tshuapa provinces, where oil blocks 22, 4 and 4b are located, dispose of clean drinking water - all of them relying instead on five local rivers. The report estimates that more than one million people in the zone could be impacted by oil pollution and ensuing waterborne diseases. Pollution would also threaten food security in this poor region, where the capital city Mbandaka and other towns and villages rely on agricultural produce from the communities at risk.

In Haut Lomami province, 21 communities were visited across the designated Upemba oil block, overlapping much of Upemba National Park. At least 150,000 local fishermen, as well as thousands of farmers growing rice and other crops, currently live in relative comfort, earning up to one million Congolese francs (USD 500) per month. Their livelihoods would be devastated by oil exploration and drilling.

Upon learning of plans to explore and drill for oil, the local population expressed fear of disease, famine, and pollution, as well as displacement from villages established on their ancestral lands: "The government project is not the model of economic activity compatible with our environment. It is harmful to us who live here and everything around us. We breathe fresh air, we live in a healthy environment - why destroy all this and our fish?" asked a local community leader.

Locals also fear becoming "slaves" and the emergence of new social conflicts once oil exploration begins: "As our ancestors experienced, the creation of Upemba Park disrupted our way of life with restrictions on access and activities. We are not ready to welcome an oil company," said another community member.

The report also highlights risks of increased corruption and rent-seeking at the national level: "The haste to deliver all oil and gas blocks might be an attempt to monopolise financial resources in the twilight of this government in the pre-election period," said Bantu Lukambo, director of IDPE. "Civil society will resist feeding networks of corruption at the expense of Congolese people in this sensitive period."

Aside from being a climate, biodiversity, health and rule-of-law catastrophe in the making, the legal mandate for authorising auction of 30 oil and gas blocks by the government remains unclear and dubious. The report indicates that nearly half of the blocks appear to be auctioned without following the official tendering procedure. The auction may also be non-compliant with the DRC's 2011 Environment law, 2014 Nature Conservation law and 2015 Hydrocarbons law.

Contacted on this subject, Mr. Budimbu indicates that "it was inadvertent" that the Council of Ministers had only discussed 16 instead of 30 oil and gas blocks.

The report calls on the DRC government to immediately cancel its plans for oil and gas, and to promote alternative investments in renewable energies, in order to end the energy poverty from which 72 million Congolese suffer.

Donor countries, whose COP26 forest protection agreement with DRC greenlights oil and gas activity across the rainforest, protected areas and peatlands, are urged to work with the Congolese government on alternatives to oil and gas activity and to condemn the latter's impacts on human rights, the rule of law and the environment.

Finally, financial institutions considering supporting oil and gas development in DRC will find ample evidence in this report that basic standards have been violated, namely the need to obtain the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of potentially affected communities.

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