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‘They’ll Have to Kill Me First’: Locals in DR Congo Oppose Plans to Drill for Oil

Jean Bolengu Ekunja drove his spear into the ground. “We won’t compromise,” he told the crowd gathered in Baringa, a village deep in the Congo basin rainforest. “If oil activity is what they are going to do here, they will have to kill me first, as the chief. Then they will have to slaughter all the population!”

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is auctioning rights to explore for oil in large swathes of rainforest and other protected areas across the country. Baringa, in the northwest, is one of scores of communities affected. The process has sparked fierce yet familiar debate about environment and development, and set the stage for a legal fight over community rights.

DRC’s hydrocarbons minister, Didier Budimbu, has said the country needs to extract its oil and gas “so that our children can eat and we can develop our economy”. It is the latest attempt to exploit fossil fuel resources in one of the world’s poorest countries, where almost two-thirds of people survive on less than $2.15 (£1.73) a day, the international poverty line.

The first contracts – for gas extraction from Lake Kivu – were signed in September, but the deadline for bids to look for oil in the heart of the rainforest has been pushed to next year. Many previous attempts to exploit DRC’s fossil-fuel reserves have ended in failure, beset with scandal and officials cancelling contracts.

This time around, the DRC has promised the auction will be transparent, impartial and competitive. But an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) revealed a process plagued with apparent preferential treatment and backroom deals.

Some of the oil blocks up for auction lie within the Congo basin rainforest, which is peppered with small farming and fishing communities. DRC law requires the government to get the opinion of local people before any project or activity that may have an impact on the environment, yet people here say they have not been asked about the auction.

A few hours upstream from Baringa and several kilometres further into the forest is Lisoko, a farming community. With no phone network or radio coverage, the community has little access to news about the oil block auction. Nadine Bolumbu, the chief of this and six neighbouring villages, said no one apart from Greenpeace had told them about the auction. She said the villagers’ position was clear: “We owe our survival to the forest. We refuse oil exploitation in our group.” Budimbu and the ministry of hydrocarbons declined to comment.

People in Lisoko gather cassava leaves and fat yellow caterpillars from the swampy forest surrounding the village, where African teak trees loom out of the water, some reaching up to 50 metres high. This tangle of trees serves as a hunting ground for wild boar, antelopes and other bushmeat, and villagers catch fish in its pools and streams. Bamboo and thick branches provide structures for their one-storey homes, many built from earth packed and cooked into bricks.

The lack of infrastructure raises questions over how realistic oil exploration is. After a flight from Kinshasa, Lisoko is a two-day trip by motorboat up the Congo river and its tributaries, then a journey into the forest.

There are few roads here, just narrow tracks for motorbikes to whip along, their drivers ducking to avoid low branches and fallen trees. Goods are transported via the river, with live goats on makeshift rafts and timber piled high on barges. Exporting oil from this area would involve building hundreds of miles of pipeline through dense rainforest.

Similar licences acquired from the government in the past have remained unused for years due to the huge investment they require.

Vincent Rouget, a director at the consultancy Control Risks, said the current government may have intended to raise funds from the auction before the forthcoming election in December. Instead it has become an election issue, with the leading opposition candidate, Moïse Katumbi, stating that he would scrap plans to explore for oil in the Congo basin if he wins.

That opposition stretches beyond the DRC. Last year, the US climate envoy John Kerry asked the government to withdraw some of the oil blocks to protect the tropical rainforest – the last in the world with enough trees to absorb more carbon than it emits. International and Congolese environmental organisations have called for the government to scrap the auction altogether.

At least 13 of the blocks overlap protected areas, according to Greenpeace Africa. That includes the world’s largest tropical peatlands, near Lisoko, which fan out from tributaries of the Congo river in the northwest. It has been described by experts as the worst place in the world to drill for oil because peatlands lock in partially decayed plant matter that, if disturbed, could release vast amounts of carbon, dramatically adding to global heating.

It is also an area rich in wildlife, including bonobos, crocodiles and forest elephants, among many other species. Set against the trilling of crickets, kingfishers and hornbills, the government’s promise to ensure that any oil exploration is done responsibly rings hollow.

Sitting under a palm-roofed shelter out of the punishing midday sun, Albert Ifaso Bonguli, one of Lisoko’s village elders, asked: “After this exploitation, what will be left here? They’ll abandon the land with the craters, there will be water pollution, all the animals will flee.”

He was unconvinced that oil would bring jobs to local communities, which desperately need funds to send their children to school and pay for medical care.

Few people here end up in secondary education, where final exams cost more than $70 (£56) – a huge sum for people whose main source of income is from the surplus bushmeat, vegetables and fish they can sell in local markets.

“The villagers don’t know anything about this kind of work,” Bonguli said. “The income from the oil will not benefit the Congo, only the investors who are financing the exploitation.”

The government has so far struggled to attract bidders for the oil blocks, and some major companies, such as TotalEnergies, have said they will not take part. Finding funding and insurance for projects to extract oil in the rainforest may also prove difficult. Many financial institutions have committed to ensuring that any projects they support have the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities. Generali, Hannover Re, Talanx and Zurich have, according to Greenpeace, ruled out providing cover for oil and gas blocks in the DRC. Hannover Re said this was due to “expectations and exclusions” relating to environment, social and governance issues.

The lack of consent from the communities that TBIJ visited was evident. They may not have been consulted, but many have heard rumours of the auction. Seeing a group of outsiders speeding through the village on motorbikes and assuming they were there to take the oil, local people shouted: “Thieves!”, “We refuse!” and “Get out of here!”

Back in Baringa, Ekunja said his village has not been consulted on the auctions. But it had discussed them – and their answer was clear.

Non! N-O-N!” he shouted, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Source: The Guardian