DR Congo opens up its rainforest to oil leases

The Democratic Republic of Congo will launch, on Thursday, the call for tenders for the rights to exploit oil deposits, part of which is in forest areas that are important in the fight against global warming. A controversial project justified by the authorities through economic requirements.

By the smell of oil profit attracted. The Democratic Republic of the Congo will continue, Thursday July 28 and Friday July 29, with the call for tenders for the granting of rights to exploit 27 blocks of oil and three blocks of natural gas.

A flagship project for the government of President Félix Tshisekedi, who presented this operation as a new page in the country’s economic history. The government estimates that with potential untapped reserves capable of producing up to one million barrels of oil per day, the country will generate oil rents of more than 30 billion dollars per year, explained the New York Times.

Chaos in the bay

But faced with this argument, scientists and NGOs criticized an initiative that would harm one of the most important carbon sinks in the world: the rainforest of the Congo Basin. “We ask the president to cancel this suicidal project for our environment because these auctions risk having a negative impact on the climate, biodiversity and local communities”, assured Patient Muamba, who deals with the protection of tropical forests. for Greenpeace Africa. On Tuesday, he delivered to the country’s presidency a petition signed by more than 100,000 people who opposed the oil auction.

“100,000 people is good, but we represent a country and its interests [près de] 100 million inhabitants and we will not go through the diktat of an NGO”, answered Didier Budimbu, the Minister of Hydrocarbons, during a press conference organized the same day.

This battle is more specifically related to nine blocks out of 27 auctioned. They are located in the territory of the vast tropical forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and especially in the Central Cuvette, which hides a vast area of ​​peatland that is considered a treasure of the world in biodiversity and an asset in the fight against global . warming up..

What makes NGOs like Greenpeace so angry is that the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is aware of the importance of this unique ecosystem. Less than a year ago at COP26 in Glasgow, Felix Tshisekedi promised to protect this forest for ten years in exchange for international financial support of $500 million. This agreement, which was signed with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was recognized as “historic” by the United Nations.

Despite this agreement, the government decided in April to continue a call for tenders for 16 oil blocks, before extending these auctions to 27 blocks at the beginning of July, to “will increase opportunities for the country”, according to the Ministry. of Hydrocarbons. “We are very surprised by this change, because during COP26, the president presented the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a country with solutions for the climate crisis, and now it is about to become a country that there are problems”, complained Patient Muamba.

“Possibly more polluting than coal mining”

The extent of the environmental problem has only recently been discovered. It was only in 2017 that a group of scientists was able to make the first mapping of the peat bog in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The researchers then found that it is “the largest tropical peatland region in the world – approximately 165,000 km² [deux tiers de ce massif forestier se trouvant sur le territoire de la République démocratique du Congo, le reste sur celui du Congo-Brazzaville, NDLR] -, which is also the only tropical forest that is still a net carbon sink”, summarizes Bart Crezee, geographer at the University of Leeds, who participated in the mapping of this region.

This region stores a lot of CO2 than he rejected. The forest of the Central Cuvette thus represents one of the last natural barriers to global warming and, if it is damaged, “it risks releasing all the CO.2 stored for thousands of years, which can turn the Democratic Republic of the Congo into a net emitter of greenhouse gases”, explains Richard Sufo Kankeu, a geographer at the University of Le Mans, who works on the forests of the Congo basin. .

The exploitation of oil deposits in this region will represent “probably the most polluting activity of resource extraction in the world, more than the exploitation of coal”, assures Bart Crezee. The environmental impact of such an undertaking is effectively twofold. There is already a well-documented effect of oil extraction on the climate, to which is added the destruction of an ecosystem that can cause the release of CO.2 is in the air.

“We estimate that the oil blocks that are being auctioned cover one million hectares of peatland, which means about six billion tons of CO.2 can be released, equivalent to fourteen years of UK greenhouse gas emissions,” said Simon Lewis, a professor at University College London who led the mapping work on the peat bog. an article published on The Conversation website.

The risk even begins at the exploration stage. “It is necessary to build roads and other infrastructure to carry out the work of oil exploration, which will disrupt the water cycle in the basin. source of CO emissions2 in the atmosphere”, warned Bart Crezee.

Of gorillas and men

From the moment man sets foot on the economic interest of this tropical forest, it is likely to attract many people. “We know from experience that when roads are built solely dedicated to industrial logging, areas that were previously inaccessible will be opened up to harmful external actors such as loggers and illegal loggers,” said Norah Berk, who followed the rainforest case of the Democratic. Republic of the Congo for the NGO Rainforest Foundation UK.

Because it is not only the climate that is threatened. The announcement of the call for tenders has mobilized environmental NGOs because one of the blocks encroaches on the Virunga National Park, a famous protected reserve on the border of Rwanda and Uganda, which is home to large population of mountain gorillas, an endangered species. “But it’s not just the gorillas. The peat bog is home to many other species such as forest elephants, bonobos and African dwarf crocodiles. And we don’t know everything yet. what else can we find- an”, remembers Bart Crezee.

We know, however, that “millions of people depend on this forest to survive”, points out Norah Berk. He fears that the allocation of oil exploitation rights in this region will lead to the destruction of their way of life, and that some of them are at risk of being expelled.

“We do not have this question yet. For now, we will allocate blocks to check if there is oil in these regions”, answered Didier Budimbu to a question asked by France 24 about the risk of expropriation.

An oil windfall to reduce poverty

The Minister of Hydrocarbons has not stopped the effort in recent months to try to clear the ground and promote this call for tenders. He recalled that in 2014, the British documentary “Virunga” and the activism of two Hollywood stars – Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck – defeated the previous attempt to exploit the oil deposits in the Virunga region.

“We will not allocate blocks without conducting environmental impact studies”, assured Didier Budimbu several times during the press conference on Tuesday. His ministry also pointed out that today’s technological advances make it possible to explore without necessarily endangering the environment. Drilling can now be done with “surgical precision” to avoid affecting the peat bog, insisted Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Congo on climate issues and adviser to the Minister of Hydrocarbons, to the New York Times.

But the government is not only defending itself against accusations of preparing the ground for an ecological disaster. He is also very offensive: “Our priority is not to save the planet” but to create growth and reduce poverty, hammered Tosi Mpanu Mpanu. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world with 60 million people living on less than $1.90 a day, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

Same story with Didier Budimbu. “If we have such resources, we will not use them as an ornament, but to benefit the country and its inhabitants,” he said. And to add: “Hydrocarbon deposits are exploited only to 4.5% of their potential, which sends shivers down the spine when you know how much poverty is in our country.”

Authorities also regretted the two speeding convictions. The country is the subject of strong criticism while Joe Biden can go and ask Saudi Arabia to increase oil production without this much angering the NGOs, pointed out the New York Times. Ditto for Norway which, in general indifference and a context of rising energy prices, announced its intention to exploit new oil deposits in the Arctic.

“We must not forget the political context of the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” assured Richard Sufo Kankeu. A presidential election should be organized in 2023 and “the population should be more interested in the new roads built and the civil servants paid, than the climate to be saved”, confirms this researcher. The windfall of oil can be a good argument in the election.

However, the government could quickly find itself in an uncomfortable situation. It is in Kinshasa that the preparatory work for COP27 will begin in September, which will then take place in Egypt. There is no doubt that the question of the future of tropical forests will be put on the table again.

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