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Locals in the dark about oil auctions in DRC: report

A woman paddles a canoe near Mbandaka, capital of Equateur Province in northwest DRC. Photo by Oxfam.

  • Greenpeace Africa and a group of environmental organizations have released a report in one of the first field investigations into local views on a wave of anticipated oil exploration.
  • Researchers visited fourteen villages in four of the proposed oil blocks, finding that most residents didn’t know about the government’s plans.
  • This week the DRC’s environment minister rejected an appeal by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry to remove some blocks from the auction.

One of the first on-the-ground investigations into the Democratic Republic of Congo’s proposed oil exploration blocks suggests that in some of the regions marked for auction, many residents are wary of the government’s plans. In a report released by Greenpeace Africa along with a group of international and Congolese NGOs, villagers living inside four of the blocks said they’d been told next to nothing about the auctions and that they feared environmental damage that might accompany oil extraction.

Advocates with Greenpeace Africa said their findings contradicted the DRC government’s position that the auctions were needed to alleviate poverty, and called for them to be canceled.

“Exploring for oil won’t make people of the DRC better off: pollution will reach the many and revenues will reach a handful of beneficiaries in Kinshasa and overseas,” said Raoul Monsembula, Greenpeace’s coordinator for Central Africa.

Researchers working with the group visited a total of 14 villages in four of the proposed oil blocks: three in the DRC’s northwest Tshuapa and Equateur provinces, and another in Haut-Lomami to the southeast. The blocks are part of a tender of 30 overall that was launched in late July over the fierce objections of environmental groups, who say that oil and gas exploration in the DRC’s forests would be an ecological disaster that could irreparably damage the livelihoods of people living in and around extraction sites.

In Equateur province’s Block 22, which overlaps with a carbon-rich peatlands complex called the Cuvette Centrale, villagers who were interviewed for the report said they weren’t aware of the government’s plans or what they should expect from oil exploration in the area.

“If this project were for the good of the population, it could have discussed it with us in advance. They shouldn’t put blocks in areas we live in without having notified us beforehand,” one was quoted as saying.

 

A map displaying the location of oil blocks included in the DRC’s auction, courtesy of Greenpeace Africa. Researchers working with the group visited blocks 4, 4b, 22, and Upemba for their report.

The blocks in Equateur and Tshuapa provinces have been particularly controversial given their proximity to the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, which could hold as much as 29 billion metric tons of carbon. While the blocks themselves only cover a fraction of the peatlands complex, researchers say the roads and infrastructure that would be built to enable industrial oil exploration would make it easier for loggers and developers to degrade the area. The blocks also overlap with protected areas like the Lomako Yokolala Wildlife Reserve, home to bonobos and other rare fauna.

A large portion of commercial activity in Equateur and Tshuapa hinges on the region’s swamp forests and rivers, which provide livelihoods for fishers and farmers as well as serving as transport routes for trading between villages and local capitals. Congolese environmentalists point to the Niger Delta as an example of the damage that oil extraction can do to riverine ecosystems, saying that any economic benefits aren’t worth the risk to local people’s lives.

“Oil will never contribute to the development of countries in Africa,” said Bantu Lukambo, director of IDPE, a Congolese environmental NGO that conducted fieldwork for the report. “On the contrary, it creates poverty and insecurity. Our leaders should be thinking about agriculture and putting an end to corruption.”

The report didn’t indicate the precise number of people who were interviewed or their names, out of what its authors said were concerns for their safety. In Haut-Lomami province, where the block on auction overlaps with a sizeable portion of the 11,730-square-kilometer (4,530-square-mile) Upemba National Park, researchers visited four fishing villages and found that none of them had been informed of an upcoming oil tender by the DRC government.

The tender itself has been the subject of controversy since it was first announced last year, with critics saying it doesn’t align with President Félix Tshisekedi’s description of the DRC as a “solutions country” to climate change. Supporters of the auction, including Environment Minister Ève Bazaiba, say the DRC shouldn’t be expected to forgo oil revenues and have bristled at pressure to walk the decision back.

At a pre-meeting in Kinshasa this week for next month’s COP27 climate summit that will be held in Egypt, Bazaiba dismissed a request by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry that some of the blocks be taken out of the auction. While the DRC earlier agreed to join a working group with the U.S. to discuss forest protection, she said it would not affect the country’s decision to open the blocks for exploration and potential drilling.

“This is not a working group in which a colonialist controls a colony,” she told Reuters.

So far, little is known about whether any of the blocks have already been auctioned off, or if so, to whom. As bidders begin to emerge, advocates say they expect the government to try and convince people living in the blocks that oil exploration will be minimally disruptive and beneficial to the local economy.

“The government profits from ignorance in local communities, brandishing the argument that with oil everyone will be rich and they will use modern, non-polluting techniques,” Lukambo said. “But there is nowhere in the world where oil has been exploited without pollution.”

Banner image: A woman paddles a canoe near Mbandaka, capital of Equateur Province in northwest DRC. Photo by Oxfam.