The Democratic Republic of Congo has announced it will auction off oil and gas permits in the habitat of critically endangered gorillas and the world’s largest tropical peatlands next week. The sale raises concerns about the credibility of a forest protection deal signed with the country by Boris Johnson at COP26.
On Monday, Hydrocarbons Minister Didier Budimbu said the DRC was expanding an auction of oil exploration blocks to include two sites that straddle Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site home to the last gorillas of earth mountain.
The planned sale already included permits in the tropical Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the northwest of the country, which store three years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions.
The Congo Basin is the only major rainforest that sucks in more carbon than it emits and experts have described it as the worst place in the world to explore for fossil fuels.
Environmental groups have urged major fossil fuel companies not to participate in the auction and said President Felix Tshisekedi, who signed a $500m (£417.6m) deal to protect the forest with Boris Johnson on the first day of Cop26 last year is expected to cancel the sell out. The Congo Basin rainforest spans six countries and regulates rainfall all the way to Egypt.
Speaking to the Guardian, Budimbu acknowledged environmental concerns but defended his country’s right to exploit its natural resources. He said revenues from oil and gas projects were needed to protect the Congo Basin forest and develop the country economically.
“We have a primary responsibility towards Congolese taxpayers who, for the most part, live in conditions of extreme precariousness and poverty, and aspire to the socio-economic well-being that oil exploitation is likely to provide them”, did he declare.
Earlier this week, Budimbu told the Financial Times that Hollywood actors Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio got “on their high horses” and helped stop oil and gas exploration in Virunga after a 2014 Netflix documentary, but said that this time the DRC would not be stopped. .
The sale, scheduled for July 28-29, has raised concerns over the credibility of a letter of intent signed by Boris Johnson on behalf of the Central African Forest Initiative (Cafi) for a 10-year deal that includes targets protection -value forests and peatlands with 12 donor nations.
Lord Goldsmith, Britain’s international environment minister, said the UK government was “very concerned” about plans for oil exploration in the Cuvette Centrale.
“We strongly believe that local people should benefit directly from their forests, and degrading them does not achieve this. We will continue to work with the Democratic Republic of Congo on solutions to protect this vital ecosystem and ensure that commitments to reform the mining, oil and gas sector are met,” he said.
The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, with nearly three-quarters of its 60 million people living on less than $1.90 a day in 2018, according to the World Bank. The country’s per capita emissions were 141 times lower than those of the UK in 2019, which is responsible for 3% of all historical global emissions, not counting those under colonial rule, according to Carbon Brief.
Irene Wabiwa, international project manager for the Congo forest campaign at Greenpeace Africa, said the auction made a mockery of the DRC’s efforts to position itself as a country of solutions to the climate crisis.
“The neo-colonial and ever-growing rush for oil and gas in the DRC, which now threatens Virunga National Park, in addition to water sources, peatlands and protected areas, is a disturbing example of the unbridled obsession with monetize nature,” she said.
Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London and a global expert on DRC peatlands, said the Congo Basin was the worst place in the world to explore for oil and gas.
“Opening up these forests to oil development will lead to hunting, deforestation, oil pollution, carbon emissions and social conflict. The oil auction is an auction to trigger a disaster for wildlife , health, climate and human rights,” he said.
“Oil development risks causing social unrest, as seen in the Niger Delta. The conflict in central DRC, just a river journey from Kinshasa, could threaten the stability of the government and the whole country. Given that the Congo war of 1998-2003 and its aftermath killed more than 5 million people, everything must be done to avoid conflict in the Congo. The auction should be cancelled.
Cafi said he was unable to comment at this stage.