The Congo Basin is under the hammer. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an oil auction is opening up vast areas of the Congo rainforest for oil drilling. Across the border, in the Republic of the Congo, oil companies already hold drilling rights in the rainforest. If fossil fuel companies start extracting oil in the Congo Basin, the effects will resonate deep into the rainforest and around the globe. A Congo Basin oil spree will turn one of the world’s largest carbon sinks into a climate killer. It could leave humans’ closest living relative, the bonobo, homeless. The mountain gorillas of the Virunga national park would once again see their home under threat. Oil companies are taking an economic gamble that people in the Congo forests and across the world fiercely reject.
The Congo Rainforest Under the Hammer
In July 2022, the DRC government put licenses for 30 oil and gas blocks all across the country up for sale.14841 At least 13 of the 30 blocks overlap with protected areas like the Virunga and Upemba National Parks.14845 According to Didier Budimbu, DRC Minister of Hydrocarbons, TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil were interested in the oil licenses.14849 Later, both companies said they would not participate in the auction.14851 It is not clear whether they will keep their promise. The auction of the oil blocks in the Congo Basin should have ended in January 2023, but the DRC Minister of Hydrocarbons extended the deadline to various dates between April and October 2023.14853
The DRC’s oil auction is opening the doors for fossil fuel companies to invade the rainforest of the Congo Basin, which stretches from the African Great Lakes in the east to the Gulf of Guinea in the west. It straddles six countries.14855 The largest part of the Basin lies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through the Basin flows the world's deepest river, the Congo River. Along its banks lie savannahs, swamps, peatlands and old-growth forests. It is the only river in the world to cross the equator twice.
The second largest rainforest on Earth grows in the Congo Basin.14857 Thousands of different plant and animal species live here. Many of them cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.14859 Okapis, the so-called forest giraffes, wander through the dense rainforest. The closest living relatives to humans, the bonobos, climb in the trees. More than 98% of the bonobos’ DNA is identical to human DNA.14861 The Congo Basin is their only home.14861
The Congo rainforest supports the livelihoods of around 80 million people throughout Central Africa.14863 Approximately 40 million people live in the forest.14865 Among them are an estimated 500,000 indigenous people.14867 The Mbuti, Baka, Batwa and other indigenous peoples often live nomadic lives. They move around the rainforest several times a year.1486914867 For many of them, the forest is more than just the place where they live: it connects them with their ancestors and is their spiritual ground.14871
Most local people have no say in the oil plans. A 2022 report by Congolese NGOs highlighted the concerns of local people who live in four of the oil blocks up for auction.14845 In some of these areas, hardly any roads, hospitals, schools or mobile phone networks exist. Many families collect their drinking water from rivers and earn an income from farming, fishing and hunting. They depend on healthy ecosystems and clean rivers. An oil spill in these areas could ruin their harvest and turn their only source of drinking water into poisonous brew. Many people worry that the oil companies will take their land, chase them away and fuel tensions in the already conflict-ridden country. In the country’s only active oil block on the DRC coast, the Anglo-French company Perenco has been contaminating the soil and water with oil spills and poisoning communities with toxic gases for more than 15 years.1487314875 Villagers in the oil blocks currently up for auction fear that their home could face the same fate.14845
Drilling in the World’s Carbon Storehouse
When oil and gas companies drill in the Congo rainforest, they also jeopardize the carbon storehouse in the rainforest’s soil: peat. Peat comes in thick layers of brown soil-like material in the ground. It forms over thousands of years as dead plants sink to the bottom of the swampy parts of the forest. Unknown to many, peat is enormously efficient at storing carbon. Peatlands cover only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but they hold more carbon than any other type of vegetation.14877 For this reason, scientists from all over the world plead for the protection of peatlands.14879
The peatlands of the Congo Basin are at the global frontier of climate change. They are the largest tropical peatland complex in the world. Scientists estimate that they hold 31 billion tons of carbon.14881 This is about as much carbon as global fossil fuel combustion causes over a timespan of three years.14883 The peatlands of the Congo Basin have helped regulate the world’s climate without disturbance from industry or infrastructure for thousands of years.14883
In the current DRC oil and gas auction, a big chunk of this carbon storehouse is up for sale. Three oil blocks overlap with the peatlands in the Congo Basin.14883 If oil companies want to extract oil from the ground, they will need to cut down the trees in the rainforest, drain the wetlands and build roads and other infrastructure. In the process, they would dry up the peat and release the carbon stored in the ground.14855 Consequently, Congo Basin oil would have a staggering carbon footprint.14885
Destroying Rainforests and Peatlands for Nothing?
Drilling for oil in the vulnerable Congo rainforests and the vital carbon sink of the peatlands is an economic gamble. So far, there has not been one example of successful oil production in the rainforests and peatlands of the Congo Basin. In those parts of the peatlands that stretch across the border into the neighboring country Republic of the Congo (ROC), oil companies have been sitting idly on their oil blocks for years. As of spring 2023, Eni and Société Nationale des Pétroles du Congo (SNPC) are the only companies that hold oil licenses in the peatlands of ROC.14887 Contrary to what the companies had hoped, oil production has not yet commenced. They have not announced any progress in their license areas. TotalEnergies also used to hold an exploration license in the peatlands of the ROC but handed it back to the authorities in 2021.14889
As of spring 2023, the only company that has drilled in the Congo Basin is PEPA. In 2019, PEPA drilled an exploration well in the Ngoki block and announced a massive find. However, industry experts doubt that PEPA’s figures are plausible. Some believe that PEPA tried to lure investors into financing oil projects in the region.14887 Since it drilled the exploration well in 2019, PEPA has not announced further progress.
Virunga Under Threat, Again
Back in the DRC, in the easternmost edge of the Congo Basin, the oil auction penetrates the borders of the world-known Virunga National Park. Once set up under Belgian colonial rule, the park is widely known for its rich wildlife. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to rare and endangered species, such as the mountain gorilla. While indigenous people and local communities were forced to leave the national park for the sake of “conservation”, oil companies are invited in. Two oil blocks are up for auction in the Virunga national park.14891 One of the auctioned oil blocks stretches across the mountain gorilla sanctuary. Both oil blocks also stretch across the whole of Lake Edward. The fish of Lake Edward supply more than 50,000 people with food and a source of income.14893 Its water feeds the Nile River which flows all the way to Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea. Any pollution would wreck regional ecosystems, destroy people’s livelihoods and fuel conflict between the DRC and the countries along the Nile.14895
This is not the first time that permits for oil blocks are up for sale in the Virunga National Park. In 2010, SOCO International, a British oil company today known as Pharos Energy, began to search for oil in there. In this region already torn by indigenous displacement and conflicts with armed rebel groups, SOCO’s quest for oil unleashed a new level of violence.14891 Local people and rangers who worked to protect Virunga were arrested, tortured and killed.14897
Women and fisherfolk from the area were the first to protest the oil company. Their movement soon turned into a global wave of resistance.14899 Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe petitioned against SOCO.14901 The British government, Nobel Peace prize winner Desmond Tutu and financiers joined the calls. The Church of England divested GBP 1.6 billion from the British company.14903 In 2014, SOCO gave in to public pressure and abandoned its plans to drill for oil in the Virunga National Park. TotalEnergies, who at that time also held exploration rights in the area, also gave in and pledged not to explore for oil in the Virunga national park.14905 The historic resistance against oil exploration in the Virunga National Park should be a lesson to international companies hungry for oil in the Congo Basin.
Nearly a decade after SOCO’s collapse, environmental defenders and local people are still prepared to fight for the forests, animals and peatlands in Virunga and the rest of the Congo Basin. In 2022, more than 100,000 people petitioned to halt the opening of the Congo Basin to oil production. They called the plans an “unmitigated disaster for the climate, biodiversity and local people.”14907 Already in 2019, a coalition of African civil society organizations urged international companies to refrain from exploiting fossil fuels in the peatlands. They also pushed investors to stay away from financing projects that overlap the peatlands of the Congo Basin.14909 As the fossil fuel industry takes further steps to exploit oil there, civil society’s call is as valid as ever before.
So far, oil companies’ attempts to turn the Congo Basin into an oil production zone have failed. Environmental defenders kept fossil fuel companies out of the Virunga National Park. They will continue to fight for healthy rainforests, undisturbed peatlands and a fossil-free Congo Basin.
Groups working against oil in the Congo Basin: Appui aux Initiatives Communautaire de Protection de l'Environnement de Développement Durable (AICED), Congolese Centre des Technologies Innovatrices et le Développement Durable (CTIDD), Mouvement de Jeunes pour la protection de l’environnement (MJPE-RDC), Réseau pour la Conservation et la réhabilitation des écosystèmes forestiers (CREF), Association des Jeunes Visionnaires RDC, Fossil Free Virunga, 350Africa.org, Greenpeace Africa, Rainforest Rescue, Extinction Rebellion République University of Goma, DRC, Synergy of Ecologists for Peace and Development (SEPD DRC), Solidarité pour la Réflexion et Appui au Développement Communautaire (SORADEC)