Protests erupt over exploration licence granted to Chinese company endangering Republic of Congo’s national park

The permit will endanger the Conkouati-Douli National Park, home to several endangered wildlife species

Local and international conservation groups are protesting the issuance of an oil and gas exploration permit for the Conkouati block in Central Africa’s Republic of Congo to a Chinese fossil fuel company, China Oil Natural Gas Overseas Holding United. They believe this will interfere with the environmental health of Conkouati-Douli National Park, the country’s most biodiverse protected area.

The move, they complained, comes three months of the country’s government signed a S$50 million forest protection deal with donors at the 28th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in 2023, which is now at risk of withdrawal.

Oil and gas prospecting or even worse, development, will threaten the survival of the park, home to key endangered wildlife species including the Western lowland gorilla, the leatherback turtle and the forest elephant, according to 13 local and international groups.

Also at risk is the wellbeing of approximately 7,000 people living in 58 village settlements, belonging to various ethnic groups, whose livelihoods are dependent on the forest, which is also a recognised Ramsar site.

The conservationists argued that oil development in the area would be a “disaster for human and economic rights, the environment, and governance”. They contend that the previously unexplored and unlicensed Conkouati oil block overlaps with 26 per cent of the Conkouati-Douli National Park and over 1,000 square kilometres of undisturbed tropical forest.

This is despite the park, which enjoys support from donors, including the French Agency for International Development and the European Union, protecting over 5,000 kilometres of coastal, marine and forest ecosystems where the Republic of Congo’s tropical rainforest meets the Atlantic Ocean.

In a report by Earth Institute and Greenpeace Africa released ahead of World Rainforest Day on June 22, 2024, the campaigners state that the park additionally conserves an “important hydrologic ecosystem”, including over 130 square kilometres of wetlands, rivers, lakes, and streams, all now at risk.

The park, established in 1999 by Presidential decree, is co-managed by Parcs de Noe, a French conservation non-profit, since April 2021. In October 2023, its boundaries were extended by an additional 2,900 square kilometres of offshore area, creating the country’s first-ever Marine Protected Area. The report noted:

The 1999 decree that founded the park states that exploration and exploitation permits can only be granted within areas designated as ‘eco-development zones,’ but that extractive activities are not allowed within the 5 km buffer zone on the South and East sides of the park.

The authors of the report warned that while the threat of oil and gas exploration, along with other extractive activities, has been present in the park from the beginning, ‘numerous’ other ‘unawarded’ exploration blocks overlap over half the park.

“In the 1999 decree, there was language that allows for natural resource extraction within the eco-development zones. This was then contradicted by a 2008 law (law number 37-2008) that prohibits fossil fuel extraction in protected areas,” said Anna Bebbington, senior spatial analyst at Earth Insight. This legal uncertainty has left room for extractive permits to be granted, and there have previously been mining and logging concessions within the park, she told Down To Earth.

Currently, she explained, a number of Chinese oil companies and subsidiaries are operating in the Republic of Congo, prospecting for not just oil but for minerals as well. These include another Chinese oil firm, Zhi Guo Pétrole, which has won a 1,500-hectares gold prospecting permit in Conkouati-Douli’s buffer zone.

While the immediate impacts of oil exploration — deforestation, infrastructure, habitat fragmentation — will be felt primarily in the Republic of Congo, there is a risk that oil spills and contamination could have repercussions outside of the oil block, the park and beyond the Republic of Congo, she disclosed.

“A closer look at the situation in Conkouati-Douli National Park illustrates a huge global problem — namely that oil and gas and industrial expansion continues to open up and fragment critical ecosystems. Simply put, we need to ensure the protection of protected areas and intact ecosystems globally while also finding ways to advance regenerative economic development,” she added.

The issuance of the prospecting permit in February, only months after Republic of Congo signed a $50 million “forest protection” deal with donors at COP28 last December, is a betrayal on “multiple levels”, said Joan Igamba of Greenpeace Africa. It is a betrayal of the Republic of Congo’s international commitments, a violation of its national laws and a betrayal of ordinary Congolese people, who will bear the brunt of yet another ruthless oil company out to enrich its owners while “lining the pockets of elites”. She emphasised:

This isn’t just about protecting a national park — it’s about sending a message. We won’t stand by and watch Africa become a playground for greedy companies that exploit our natural resources for their own gain. Africa deserves a clean energy future.

Overall, the report recommended cancellation of the exploration licence as well as a ban on extractive exploration and all forms of resource exploitation be it fossil fuels, mining and logging in the park and its buffer zone, including in the so-called “eco-development zones”.

It calls for the removal of currently unlicensed oil and gas blocks that overlap with the park from the Republic of Congo’s mining domain, and appeals to donor nations to halt disbursement of committed conservation funding to the country until the ban on fossil fuel exploration and exploitation in protected areas is strictly enforced.

It wants the protection of community rights to access, use, and manage resources within the park, and that management plans should always be developed in partnership with local communities, warning that increased vigilance against extractives must never be used to limit community rights.

The report advises the Congolese government to increase efforts in diversifying the economy, reduce and phase out “reliance on the fossil fuels sector”, which currently accounts for 50 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, and 80 per cent of exports and government revenue.

Protecting the park is an important test of African governments’ and donor countries’ resolve to protect our forests, said Greenpeace Africa forest campaigner, Stella Tchoukep.

“We protect these places first and foremost because we protect our people. Biodiversity isn’t plants and animals for tourism, export, or storing carbon: biodiversity is our clean air, our clean water, our food, our medicine and our shared future. The government of the Republic of Congo must reverse its decision,” she remarked.

Tyson Miller, Executive Director of Earth Insight, said, “On World Rainforest Day, a closer look at the situation in Conkouati-Douli National Park illustrates a huge global problem — namely that oil and gas and industrial expansion continues to open up and fragment critical ecosystems. Simply put, we need to ensure the protection of protected areas and intact ecosystems globally while also finding ways to advance regenerative economic development.”

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