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Oil firm Perenco eyes new blocks in DRC amid criticism of its track record

Villagers of Muanda.

In Muanda, surrounding communities have suffered the loss of the natural resources they depend on for a living. Image © Greenpeace.

  • Oil multinational Perenco has bid on two new oil blocks being auctioned off by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Perenco operates the country’s only oil production facilities, at Muanda, near the mouth of the Congo River.
  • Local and international critics accuse the oil company of polluting the environment, affecting fishing and farming, as well as residents’ health; the company denies this.

In the two decades since the Franco-British multinational Perenco established operations at Muanda, at the mouth of the Congo River, surrounding communities have suffered the loss of the natural resources they depend on for a living. Now, the company is bidding on two new oil blocks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Local and international critics of its environmental record say it should not be allowed to expand.

“Like most people here, I make my living from farming,” says Nicole Bila, a farmer and coordinator of a local NGO, Natural Resources and Development (RENAD). “I live next to Perenco’s operating area in Muanda. But to farm, I have to go a long way off, to where there are no oil wells, because the land is no longer fertile here.”

Bila and her neighbours here in the Muanda region of the DRC’s Kongo Central province, grow cassava, maize, black-eyed peas and oil palm to feed their families and for the market. Many residents also hunt antelopes, bushpigs and cane rats in the area’s forests; others fish in the region’s rivers.

Perenco has bid to acquire the rights to two nearby oil blocks, Nganzi and Yema II, made available for exploration in a high-profile auction launched by the DRC government a year ago.

An oilfield location in Muanda early in the morning.
Perenco oil facilities at Muanda: in the two decades since the Franco-British multinational established operations here, surrounding communities have suffered the loss of the natural resources they depend on for a living. Image by papagaio-pirata via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Social and environmental costs

In April 2022, RENAD published a report documenting dying trees, cassava rotting in the fields, and the disappearance of terrestrial and aquatic species. RENAD blames this on Perenco, operator of the DRC’s only oil production facilities. The NGO says spills of contaminated oil and mud, the improper burial of toxic waste, and flaring of natural gas have all taken a heavy toll on the environment and their health.

“Gas sometimes escapes into the village, people breathe it in and it makes them sick,” Bila says. “Food production has really dropped, and the population has become poorer. Now we only have enough to feed our own families, but we don’t produce enough to sell. So how can we pay the children’s school fees? How can we look after ourselves?”

Perenco has been operating at Muanda since 2001 at a site not far from Mangrove Marine Park, the country’s only marine protected area. The park is home to threatened species such as the African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) and olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), and is internationally recognized under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

RENAD’s report came nearly 10 years after a 2013 commission of inquiry organized by the DRC Senate visited Muanda. They found heavily polluted soil and a doubling of reported cases of respiratory illness in local health centers following Perenco’s arrival in 2001. The commission recommended that the DRC government enforce environmental laws and require Perenco to redo its social and environmental impact study. It also highlighted Perenco’s lack of cooperation and recommended that it comply with national and international guidelines for the management of toxic waste and flaring, and to carry out public consultations in order to minimize conflicts.

Ten years later, none of these recommendations have been acted on. Two French NGOs, Sherpa and Les Amis de la Terre France, filed a lawsuit against the multinational in Paris in November 2022, accusing it of “ecological damage.”

Perenco strongly denies the accusations of environmental damage. “This is false and defamatory. Some incidents, very often due to sabotage, may happen. They are limited to less than a barrel each and are always cleaned up in situ,” the company said in a statement emailed to Mongabay.

It also said the company has had a positive impact in the region, referring to well-paying jobs working for the company. “In addition,” the company wrote, “Perenco is the only direct provider of electricity to the city of Muanda (2MW), as well as indirectly through gas to power (3MW). We have offered the government to extend the production to 10MW for the population if the new Gas to Power project to connect Muanda to Boma is approved.”

Olive ridley turtle.
Mangrove Marine Park is home to threatened species such as the African manatee and olive ridley turtles (pictured). Image by Panegyrics of Granovetter via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Close relationships to government

Critics of the company say Perenco has long been too close to a government that is failing to properly monitor and regulate its activities.

The minister of hydrocarbons, Didier Budimbu, was the guest of honor at the May 2023 inauguration of a new offshore production platform Perenco says will help reduce flaring. “We wanted to accompany them [Perenco] in this direction, to feel it for ourselves given that we’re in the middle of a call for bids,” he said in a video posted to his official 𝕏 account. The company also donated four vehicles to the ministry for an anti-smuggling task force.

In a statement, Patient Muamba, head of Greenpeace’s Africa forest campaign, says he fears the company’s close relationship with the government will overshadow the interests of the people of Muanda. “We call on the head of the National Assembly and MPs to fully play their role in overseeing the executive. They must invite Minister Budimbu to explain his behavior. The Attorney General of the Republic must open an inquiry into these neocolonial tendencies which continue to push our authorities to put certain interests far ahead of those of their people and communities, in order to uncover the whole truth about this situation.”

In July 2023, the independent media cooperative Investigate Europe uncovered 14 suspicious transactions totaling $1.3 million made by Perenco’s DRC subsidiaries between 2014 and 2015 to companies close to former president Joseph Kabila.

Police in France, Belgium and the DRC itself are investigating, but Perenco denies there’s anything wrong with these payments: “We have had a relationship with Afritec, an established company with a good reputation. All contracts with Afritec were at the market price for the service. There is nothing untoward in our relationship with them. They have supported the Muanda airstrip refurbishment in a RVA-Perenco-State of DRC agreement. This agreement has been discussed and audited many times.”

The questions surrounding the DRC government’s regulation of the country’s only existing oil field, and local complaints about its impact on farmland and rivers around Muanda, are warning signs ahead of the conclusion of the auction of 27 new oil exploration blocks across the country.

The areas up for auction include sites within national parks, community forests, and richly biodiverse peatlands that are also massive carbon stores.

RENAD’s Bila says she fears the worst for her community if Perenco’s bid for two new oil blocks is successful. “It would be catastrophic. The blocks they want to exploit are located where we’ve moved our fields. The land is still fertile there. If they extract oil there, how are we going feed ourselves?”

Banner image: Residents discuss past and future impacts of the DRC’s oil industry in Muanda during a visit by Greenpeace April 2023. Image © Greenpeace.

In Congo, a carbon sink like no other risks being carved up for oil

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