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Congo government opens Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park to oil exploration

  • In 2018, the government of the Republic of Congo opened up several blocks of land for oil exploration overlapping with important peatlands and a celebrated national park.
  • According to a government website, the French oil company Total holds the exploration rights for those blocks.
  • Conservationists were alarmed that the government would consider opening up parks and peatlands of international importance for oil exploration, while also trying to garner funds for their protection on the world stage.

The government of the Republic of Congo has, according to its own maps, opened up new areas for oil exploration in sections of the world’s largest peatlands and Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, a celebrated rainforest.

In 2018, the Central African country tendered blocks for bidding by oil companies “right over what’s often called one of the most important protected areas in Africa,” Simon Counsell, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said in an interview. “It’s bizarre.

“The government does this kind of thing without even recognizing that it’s an internationally protected area,” he added.

A central chimpanzee in the Republic of Congo. Image by Kyle de Nobrega/WCS.

Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park sits in the northern tip of the country, where its abundant forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and other wildlife benefit from cross-border protection in parks in the neighboring Central African Republic as well as Cameroon further to the west. According to the maps from the Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Hydrocarbons, the French oil company Total has secured the rights to the Koli sector, which appears to overlap with Nouabalé-Ndoki.

Conservationists worry that exploration for — and subsequent extraction of — oil from Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park could increase the risk of poaching and habitat loss in the park.

Louis Andzouono, a database manager for oil exploration and production with the National Congolese Petroleum Company (known by its French acronym, SNCP), confirmed that the Koli block overlaps with the park, in an email to Mongabay. But he said that the rights for exploration did not belong to any company as of early June 2019. The maps online at the time of this article’s publication, however, continue to show Total as the concession holder.

Based on this document, Total also controls the Mokelé-Mbembé block, which sits on part of the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale. Only in 2017 did scientists discover that this swampy forest covering 145,500 square kilometers (56,180 square miles) in the Republic of Congo and the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo holds more carbon-rich peatland that anywhere else on Earth.

Total did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay.

A forest elephant at Mbeli Bai in the Republic of Congo. Image by Kyle de Nobrega/WCS.

The environmental group Greenpeace Africa first noted this overlap in November 2018. Its analysis revealed that more than 90 percent of the Republic of Congo’s peatlands — a Kuwait-size area covering nearly 18,000 square kilometers (6,900 square miles) — fall with the tendered blocks.

“It is shocking to see how the Congolese regime is playing the international community on peatlands,” Victorine Che Thöner, who leads Greenpeace Africa’s Congo Basin Project, said in a statement at the time. “The same regime that claims to champion peatland protection at big media events is now showing the world its real intentions.”

The country’s president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, asked for Russia’s help in protecting the peatlands in a May 2019 visit to Moscow. According to a government statement, Arlette Soudan-Nonault, the minister of tourism and environment, later met with the Russian ambassador to the Republic of Congo. In addition to Sassou-Nguesso’s request for protection help, they also discussed the construction of a pipeline that would shuttle oil from the northern part of the country — not far from where the Koli and Mokelé-Mbembé blocks sit — to Pointe-Noire, a port city on the country’s Atlantic coast.

“Going on about peatlands while looking for pipeline money to embezzle is perfectly consistent with the ecocidal Sassou regime’s modus operandi,” Thöner said.

The Republic of Congo’s economy relies heavily on oil, and it’s one of the top petroleum producers in Africa, according to the Oil and Gas Year. But as oil prices have dropped in recent years, the country’s leaders have looked to expand production and to other sources of income, issuing mining permits inside another national park and within Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber concessions.

Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park is home to chimpanzees, pictured here, as well as gorillas. Image by Emma Stokes/WCS.

For Thöner, opening up a place like Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park to exploration for oil fits with that trend.

“[T]he Sassou regime has never respected the borders of national parks,” she said, “and donors could care less.”

Researchers from CIRAD, a French agricultural research center for development, have been advising the Total Foundation, the oil company’s nonprofit arm, on its pivot toward forest conservation and restoration. They’ve proposed that Total could leave undeveloped the Koli and Mokelé-Mbembé blocks, which overlap with Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park and the Cuvette peatlands, respectively. As part of Total’s corporate social responsibility initiatives, the company could, under this plan, even encourage the designation of further protected areas in that part of the Republic of Congo as a way to lock away the carbon contained in the swampy peatland soils.

Such a move may dovetail with for-profit investments in “carbon sink businesses” by Total. According to a presentation slide obtained by Mongabay, the company plans to plow $100 million a year starting in 2020 in the “preservation of forests, mangroves and degraded lands.”

Additionally, such set-asides could help the Republic of Congo curb its greenhouse gas emissions in line with a 54 percent reduction pledge by 2035 that Congolese leaders made at the 2015 U.N. climate conference in Paris. Proponents of such a move say it would be viewed favorably by international donors, such as the supporters of the Central African Forest Initiative, an international partnership aimed at protecting forests in Central Africa that draws on support from countries in Europe and Asia, as well as from the United Nations and the World Bank.

However, the Republic of Congo has reportedly continued to urge Total to proceed with the exploration of the blocks for oil production.

Rainforest Foundation UK’s Counsell pointed out that the groups that have been involved with Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park — some since its inception — haven’t said anything about the licenses so far.

Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park warden Marcel Ngangoue talks to guests at an exhibit to celebrate the park’s 25th anniversary. Image courtesy of WCS.

The Wildlife Conservation Society played a critical role in creating the national park in 1993 and continues to be involved in its management.

“The development of such a transparent framework for all major strategic and management decisions has ensured a high degree of accountability for all stakeholders, and has facilitated a notable increase in the effectiveness of on-the-ground conservation activities,” Mark Gately, who directs WCS’s Republic of Congo program, said in a statement celebrating the park’s 25th anniversary.

And WCS has been only one of the most visible of a cadre of international partners bolstering the protection of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park and the forests and species it safeguards.

“I’m just staggered that the international community hasn’t said or done something about it,” Rainforest Foundation UK’s Counsell said. “They’ve literally poured tens of millions into that protected area over the years.”

Banner image of a forest elephant by Kyle de Nobrega/WCS.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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