How will this impact ongoing restoration work? And how should we respond?
You may have seen the news about the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s oil and gas concessions recently. It was picked up by most major news outlets and trended on social media. Many of the stories included terms like “carbon bomb” and “environmental catastrophe.”
This sounds significant, but what’s the bigger story? How should we interpret these stories? This guide is designed to help you understand what’s happening with DRC drilling, how it fits into the historical context, and what it means for our shared future.
The facts about the oil and gas blocks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
On July 28, the government of the DRC announced that 30 oil and gas blocks would be available for oil and gas companies to bid on. 27 of these blocks are areas where oil may be present. The other three are places that likely hold natural gas. All of these areas have some evidence of the presence of oil/gas. Some have been more extensively explored than others. If a company wins the bid for that block, they get the opportunity to survey the land and then decide whether or not they should attempt to drill for oil/gas.
There are five groups of areas (blocks) open for bidding. Nine blocks are scattered across the interior of the country (Cuevette Centrale Blocks). These represent the largest land area and the bulk of the critique. Three blocks are in the coastal basin, four span the Uganda/DRC border, and the three natural gas blocks are on the Rwanda/DRC border. The remaining eleven blocks on Lake Tanganyika are of particular interest to Plant With Purpose. These blocks overlap with the Plant With Purpose watershed restoration areas, where our partner families live and work, and risk of being affected by the DRC drilling.
How does this impact Plant With Purpose families?
For the time being, our team in the DRC and our partner families are watching the news, while continuing to focus on grassroots mobilization across the countryside. Local communities have previously experienced the consequences of deforestation and want change. They have been leading the charge to protect and preserve the rainforest that remains in their communities while actively regenerating areas that have undergone previous deforestation. When they heard the news about potential DRC drilling, they immediately brought forward a plan to protect the forest.
We have seen that the most effective form of reforestation happens when local communities—families like our partners in the DRC—have full ownership of the trees that they’re growing. This works. Seven years ago, slash and burn farming techniques were the main cause of deforestation in our partner watersheds, but this is no longer the case.
Our team in the DRC is composed entirely of local leaders who have been working for years to cross divides and mobilize a grassroots movement. Local communities have changed their land management practices and formed systems for forest protection. We help these communities aggregate their local forest protection plans, add data that validates and verifies the change, and then present this to official sources in an effort to turn this bottom-up conservation into policy.
The communities hope that if they are the ones driving change, it will last. Research has shown this approach to be highly effective in other locations. We will continue to focus on grassroots mobilization and community advocacy while watching the news and looking for other opportunities to help.
Why is this happening now?
The DRC government estimates that they have enough oil and gas to be one of the world’s major producers. This isn’t a new discovery, so why are they releasing these blocks now?
Part of the answer is likely due to the fact that the price of oil is historically high right now. We only see prices this high during crisis moments such as in 1979/80 or the summer of 2008. It’s also likely that the DRC sees an opportunity as much of the world reduces reliance on Russian oil.
Dieter Budimbu, the Minister of Hydrocarbons of the DRC, referenced the economic benefits that could come from the oil as he launched the bid process. The proceeds from the oil and gas could finance education, infrastructure, health care, and other things that the people of the DRC desperately need.
The DRC is rich in natural resources beyond oil and gas. The country is home to tremendous mineral wealth. It is a major source of some of the most in-demand minerals on Earth. It’s also home to the second largest rainforest in the world, housing immense biodiversity and 70% of the tree cover in Africa.
The environmental cost of exploring and extracting oil across these 30 blocks is tremendous. Two of the blocks overlap with several protected areas including Virunga National Park, one of the very few homes to endangered mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Others are critical peatlands that have an outsized role in mitigating climate change. Our friends at CongoPeat produced the following map that overlays the oil and gas blocks with protected areas, FACET’s forest map, and their research mapping out peat thickness and carbon stocks in the Congo Basin.
Peatlands are excellent at storing carbon. Global peatlands, although small in land area, are estimated to store about 25% of all soil carbon on Earth. The Congo peatlands are estimated to store 30 billion metric tons of carbon. Extracting or even exploring for oil in these delicate ecosystems would release much of this stored carbon into the atmosphere, with a substantial negative impact on climate change mitigation efforts. Greenpeace has coined the term, “carbon bomb” to describe this type of circumstance, a term often cited in recent news articles covering the DRC oil and gas auction.
Congo’s forests also play a critical role in our efforts to slow the impact of the changing climate. All plants pull carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into biomass, essentially cleaning the atmosphere. Bigger trees and denser vegetation represent more carbon stored. The Congo forests contain old growth trees and exceptionally dense vegetation. It would take many years to regrow any forest areas cleared for oil and gas production. The potential climate cost would be large—the biodiversity loss, tremendous.
But as is commonly the case, this issue is complex. The DRC is one of the poorest nations in the world and represents about one out of every six people who currently experience extreme poverty.
DRC’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, is looking at the problem of poverty in the country and weighing that against the natural resource wealth that the country holds. The U.S., Norway, and many other western countries are increasing oil sales at this moment where oil is in demand and prices are high. It’s a very profitable time to have oil. Of course the DRC would want in. It’s easy to make an argument that the Congolese people need the profits from their oil more than most. As U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said in his recent speech about the DRC drilling issue, “too often African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress rather than as authors of their own progress.”
The people of the DRC understand this more than most. Resource extraction during the colonial period had a particularly harsh impact on the DRC. The rubber industry under Leopold II made a lot of people wealthy, very few of whom were Congolese. However, the violence and human rights abuses during this time were vast. Historians estimate that half of the population of the DRC likely died between 1880 and 1920.
Today, mineral extraction in the DRC often coincides with conflict. This is no coincidence. Conflict chases wealth, especially when it’s located in proximity to poverty. The local communities in Eastern Congo remain some of the poorest in the world despite their immense resource wealth. In South Kivu, for example, the areas with active mineral extraction are the red zones, the focus of armed groups. Oil and gas extraction sites are likely to follow a similar pattern.
The DRC’s resources should serve its people. This is a basic justice issue.
What can we do?
How can we be good partners with the people of the DRC and meet the needs of the planet at the same time? There are some helpful actions that we can take to do just that.
First of all, as Christians, we should pray. God works through prayer, sometimes by responding to the prayers offered and sometimes by shaping the minds and hearts of the people who are praying. Pray for the local people, pray for creative solutions, pray for wisdom of government leaders, and for a movement of Christians who are boldly living into our roles as neighbors to the people of the DRC and stewards of the Earth.
Second, as Christians, we are called to consider our neighbors. Poverty is prevalent in the DRC, and we have resources and capacity to help. Support government initiatives, nonprofits, and businesses that raise the standard of living for the people of the DRC while also improving their resilience to the challenges of climate change.
70% of people (84% of women) in the DRC are employed in agriculture. Farming families are already experiencing unpredictability in weather patterns, which is adding uncertainty to an already risky business. Programs that focus on agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, and watershed restoration projects offer economic hope and long-term environmental protection. We should support these types of programs.
We should also take great care to help without diminishing the agency of local communities over their own land and livelihoods. As you choose to support initiatives working in the DRC, ask questions about leadership. Are local leaders in a decision-making role within the organization? Do local communities have a voice in determining environmental plans for their own communities? Finally, ask about impact. Is the organization making a measurable difference?
Third, as citizens and consumers, we should advocate for policies that make it more profitable for the government (and the people) of the DRC to conserve the old growth forests and peatlands than to clear them. Support initiatives that offer payment for ecosystem services. This could come in the form of something as complex as carbon markets, but it could also be as simple as rewarding smart reforestation initiatives. Plant With Purpose has partnered with WRI, Arbor Day Foundation, Restor, the AFR100 initiative, 1t.org, and multiple other organizations who are working with us to build an ecosystem to support and finance smart reforestation in places like the DRC.
Advocate for policy initiatives that understand that payment for ecosystem services must benefit the communities who live/work on the land. In 2021, the U.S. government joined a group of world leaders who pledged $1.5 billion to support the Congo Basin’s forest. Often these types of commitments turn out to be more words than action. We can continue to advocate for world leaders to fulfill these commitments but also that they consider the needs of the local communities.
While we advocate for the people of the DRC, let’s do what we can at home. As is often the case with issues that aren’t easy headlines, one of the most important things we can do to help is to talk about the issue. Raise this issue in conversation with friends and family and help us make this a familiar topic.
Work to reduce our global dependence on oil. Diversity in energy sources offers strength and stability. Support policy initiatives that promote the development of alternative energy sources. Recent developments have made alternative energy substantially more cost effective. Further innovation is needed to continue to move in this direction. Take action locally by doing things such as reducing your energy consumption, making use of alternative or mass transit systems when possible, or adding solar panels to your roof.
Look for creative solutions and pay particular attention to solutions that come from local communities that will be affected by the oil and gas projects. Since the DRC drilling auction was announced, many outside-the-box ideas and solutions have been proposed. Plant With Purpose will continue to monitor these solutions and look for ones that show potential to bring about real change and have the support of our local communities.