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Oil exploration in DR Congo peatland risks forests, climate and local communities

Rainforest in the Congo Basin. Image by Corinne Staley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo is putting 16 oil exploration blocks up for auction, including nine in the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale.
  • Environmentalists warn that oil exploration and infrastructure for production could release huge amounts of carbon stored in the peatland and threaten the rights of local communities.
  • The Congolese government says it needs to exploit its natural resources in order to generate income to develop the country, much as countries in other parts of the world have done before it.

Last month, the Democratic Republic of Congo approved the auctioning off of 16 oil blocks, at least nine of which are in the fragile peatland ecosystem of the Cuvette Centrale. The auction aims to increase government revenue and boost domestic production of oil from its current modest level of 25,000 barrels per day.

“This is a historic error that must be corrected immediately,” Irene Wabiwa Betoko said. Betoko, who leads the Congo Basin Forest Project at Greenpeace Africa, is sharply critical of the Congolese government’s choice to favor oil over the forest and human rights.

In a statement, Greenpeace noted that “The Cuvette Centrale is a complex that is rich in peatlands, biodiversity and, according to 2017 estimates, contains around 30 gigatonnes of carbon, equivalent to 15 years of emissions from the United States.”

Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, fears that exploring for oil in these new blocks poses significant risks for the peatlands as well as the rights of hundreds of local and Indigenous communities. The extensive infrastructure required to prospect, drill for, and eventually transport oil could also lead to a cascade of deforestation as other land use changes take place around the roads and new settlements that accompany it.

The blocks being put up for auction are in unique ecosystems which play a major role in stabilizing the world’s climate. In 2017, a team led by ecologist Simon Lewis published research describing a massive peat bog in the Congo Basin.

Layers of carbon: The Congo Basin peatlands and oil

Lewis and his colleagues stress that emissions from the destruction of peatland are among the most difficult to monitor and measure.

“If Congo drains the peatlands, hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide will be emitted into the atmosphere,” he told Mongabay.

A Washington Post article about the Lewis team’s work pointed out that over the past 200 years, similar peatlands in Europe and Asia were drained to convert to farmland, releasing an estimated 250 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases.

The Congolese government says it too needs to make use of its natural resources to lift its population out of poverty. In an opinion piece published in October 2019, the president of the African Energy Chamber, N. J. Ayuk, suggests that the DRC’s on and offshore oil potential is estimated at 20 billion barrels, which would be the second-largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria.

“Our country must move forward — we must find money,” said Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga, the current petroleum minister. He told the Washington Post that preliminary studies conducted by his ministry show that exploiting just two of the proposed oil exploration blocks in peatland areas could potentially earn the DRC over $1 billion per month.

On the other hand, environmental activists and civil society organizations maintain that this project goes against the DRC government’s often-stated goal to become a “solutions country” in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, a commitment the government reiterated at COP26 last November in Glasgow, Scotland. At the global climate summit, donors pledged $500 million to support the DRC’s climate ambitions and help the country’s authorities protect the rainforest. It is still unclear what conditions donor countries will attach to this support.

In its press release, Greenpeace calls on donors to acknowledge the chaotic state of forest management in DRC and address what the campaigners called “shady and dirty plans for replacing rainforests and peatlands with oil.”

But it is also difficult to discourage support for drilling for oil amongst people in rural communities like Ikenge, in the heart of the Cuvette Centrale, impoverished amidst abundant resources. While conservationists emphasize the need to protect biodiversity, providing examples from other countries, it is virtually impossible to make a rational argument to local communities explaining why the peat must be left underground to avoid disaster.

Greenpeace Africa’s Betoko says that environmental advocates calling for the protection of biodiversity to avert disaster are accused of fear-mongering and attempting to abuse locals’ ignorance to plunder peatlands.

Eisen says the Congolese authorities must recognise that the local environmental impacts of any disturbance of the peatland activity could outweigh the potential economic benefits. He says the DRC currently has inadequate governance to ensure that oil revenue is not siphoned off by political elites.

He believes the country’s developmental needs would be better met by investing in local communities and empowering them to secure, manage, and protect their customary lands through community forests, for example.

Banner image: Congo Basin rainforest by Corinne Staley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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A version of this story was reported by Mongabay’s French team and first published here on our French site on Apr. 29, 2022.