Oil versus Forest in the Congo

Categories: Journal no. 65, Threats, Mining for mineral resources, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga National Park

Oil concessions (brown) overlapping the Virunga National Park (© Angela Meder with information by the Rainforest Foundation)

In April 2022, Greenpeace reported that the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo planned to auction off concessions for the extraction of oil. Together with numerous other nature conservation organisations, including Rainforest Rescue, Greenpeace called upon the government not to go through with this, particularly since some of these concessions were located inside national parks. A petition with over 100,000 signatures was handed to the Congolese government on 25 July.

Despite this, 27 oil and 3 gas concessions were offered in an auction in late July. Many conservationists were shocked by this because President Tshisekedi had signed a commitment during the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in late 2021, promising that the DRC would promote climate protection. Several countries had promised to finance this commitment. However, the funds were not directed to the government but rather to conservation projects via international organisations. The funds could not be used directly to finance the work and measures of the government - in contrast to those from oil extraction.

At the beginning of September, Minister of Hydrocarbons for the Congo Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga said the DRC received two offers for the oil blocks.

Oil extraction would have serious consequences for the forests and swamps where most of the concessions are located, areas that are already under severe pressure. In addition, oil extraction would have a detrimental effect on global climate and on the people living in the affected regions. However, the Congolese government rejects criticism from nature and climate conservationists stating that the primary concern of the government is to develop the country and its economy and to lead its population out of poverty. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the five poorest countries in the world. It would be remarkable if this promise was kept - there are numerous similar cases where leaders enrich themselves while the population becomes ever poorer. President Tshisekedi also announced that the revenue generated from oil extraction would be used to fund nature conservation.

In 2016, the country's oil reserves were estimated at 20 billion barrels, the second largest reserves on the African continent after Nigeria. Selling the concessions could generate 600 million dollars immediately. Further, the responsible minister estimates that the exploitation of just two of the planned concessions could procure a monthly income of one billion dollars for the state. However, one opinion is that the Congolese government does not actually intend to exploit the oil reserves, only to sell the rights. The announcement of the auction may be a ploy, exerting pressure on the richer states to provide additional funds to support climate protection and biodiversity conservation in the DRC. Experts think that the funds promised during the climate summit in Glasgow are not anywhere near enough to achieve the set goals.

The End of Virunga National Park?

The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had already granted oil concessions covering 85% of the area of the Virunga National Park by late 2007. The plans to drill for oil in the park caused heated argument. WWF initiated a protest campaign and a website was developed for this purpose. The company SOCO carried out some explorative drilling but stopped work after strong international protest (including the documentary "Drillers in the Mist", which came out on Netflix in 2014. However, work was restarted in 2017 with SOCO again involved, this time indirectly.

Oil extraction is not permitted in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Congolese government has countered this argument by indicating that the areas concerned could be excised from the national park. This would be a serious blow to nature conservation in eastern Congo as this goes against the very reason for Virunga National Park's World Heritage status.

The park is already under strong pressure from the activities of various rebel groups. For example, M23 commenced massive attacks in the region as recently as June. The rebels have settled mainly in the southern part of the park, which is where the mountain gorillas are. This makes it impossible for the rangers to control the park - so nobody knows how the gorillas are faring. The Congolese government has proposed that the park should be under the control of the military. If that were to happen, the protection of the Natural World Heritage Site would no longer be guaranteed.

Angela Meder

For more information:

Greenpeace Africa
Greenpeace Africa report on the population's reaction

Rainforest Rescue

Rainforest Foundation UK

Maps indicating the locations of oil concessions etc. posted by the Rainforest Foundation

Congo in the Crosshairs: report of the Rainforest Foundation with new maps