DRC: Is oil exploitation an economic opportunity or an ecological disaster?

By Muriel Devey Malu-Malu
Posted on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 19:57

One of the Perenco group’s pumping stations in Kinkazi, near Muanda (Central Kongo). Gwenn Dubourthoumieu for JA

When it comes to hydrocarbons, the DRC is far from playing in the big leagues. The country's oil production comes from the coastal basin (Kongo-Central. That basin produces an average of 8m barrels of oil per year, and ational petroleum reserves are estimated at 20bn barrels.

The DRC has decided to boost its oil sector to diversify the economy and adopted a hydrocarbon code in August 2015. After finalising the geological studies for future concessionaires last March, the state is now preparing to launch an international call for tenders at the end of 2021 for 19 blocks (16 oil and three gas). Three of these blocks are located in the coastal basin, nine in the central basin, four in the Tanganyika graben and three in Lake Kivu – which is rich in methane gas.

However, this tender does not have unanimous support in the DRC. In fact, Greenpeace and Congolese environmental organisations have denounced the lack of information on the existing and awarded blocks.

A lack of transparency

“No recent map is available to locate the blocks and precisely identify their beneficiaries,” says Irene Wabiwa, head of the Congo Basin Forest Project at Greenpeace. She has also called for the re-launch of the ministry of hydrocarbons website.

According to Ephrem Bwishe – coordinator of the Volontariat-Action-Mobilité collective, which focuses on the Virunga Park in North Kivu – the lack of transparency is deliberate. This is because the government hopes that NGOs will not mobilise against oil projects in protected areas.

Could this be the reason why the call for tenders did not include any blocks in the Albertine graben (Lake Albert plain), where NGOs are particularly active on these issues? These organisations are opposed to any further allocation of exploration licences in protected areas and are also demanding that all existing licences be cancelled.

Health and food safety compromised?

They are primarily targeting blocks in Central Cuvette. Located within the heart of the DRC, this area is home to Salonga National Park (home to bonobos, as well as other fauna and flora), which, like Virunga National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the blocks allocated to the Compagnie Minière Congolaise encroaches on this sanctuary.

Cuvette is also home to peat bogs that are said to store more than 30bn tonnes of carbon dioxide and whose “central role in fighting climate change is no longer in question,” says Wabiwa.

The environmentalists warn about the risks of oil and gas activity in all basins. If the lakes were polluted, it would affect water and fish supply for local communities, thus compromising their health and food security.

Oil industry vs. tourism industry

In Muanda (Central Kongo), the difficulty of accessing land, which is needed to sustain local communities, has led to conflicts with oil companies.

On Lake Albert, which is located at the border of DRC and Uganda, fish stocks are becoming scarce because of oil-related activities, says Bwishe. The lake supplies fresh and smoked fish to eastern DRC and Kinshasa.

Moreover, according to NGOs, the socioeconomic benefits of oil exploitation are very limited. Bwishe recommends developing tourism within Virunga Park, as it would be more profitable for the environment and the population than oil, which pollutes and is non-renewable. These are all concerns that Didier Budimbu, the new minister of hydrocarbons, will have to deal with.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options