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by John C. Cannon

  •     The Central African Forest Initiative negotiated a deal with the Republic of Congo for $65 million in funding.
  •     The aim of the initiative is to protect forest while encouraging economic development.
  •     But environmental organizations criticized the timing and the wording of the agreement, which they argue still allows for oil drilling and exploration that could harm peatlands and forest.
  •     Two companies in the Republic of Congo recently found oil beneath the peatlands that could nearly triple the Central African country’s daily production.

On Sept. 3, the Republic of Congo secured a stream of funding aimed at protecting forests and peatlands.

The signatures of French President Emmanuel Macron and Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso finalized a $65 million agreement outlining a set of strategies that the Central African Forest Initiative, or CAFI, which brokered the deal, says will keep ecosystems intact and lock away the carbon they contain.

CAFI is a partnership formed in 2015 with the goal of combining forest protection with economic development in the region.

Presidents sign agreement

Image from Twitter

But not long after the presidents’ pens left the paper, critics began to voice their concern that the deal could pave the way for the destruction of the Republic of Congo’s forests and peatlands. Other agreements in the Central African countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon have led to similar skepticism.

The pact “is unlikely to protect any forests,” Simon Counsell, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, said in a statement. “It seems that interests other than protecting forests are being served.”

In mid-August, two companies from the Republic of Congo announced that the peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale sit atop hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. Extracting it could nearly triple the Republic of Congo’s daily output to almost one million barrels a day, but some experts question whether that figure is exaggerated.

The peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale support a wide array of biodiversity, including lowland gorillas. Image by Tereza Mrhálková, ZOO Praha via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale support a wide array of biodiversity, including lowland gorillas. Image by Tereza Mrhálková, ZOO Praha via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Scientists first mapped the peatlands, which extend across some 145,500 square kilometers (56,200 square miles) of the Republic of Congo and its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2017. They figure that the boggy mix of decaying organic matter and forest contains 30 billion metric tons (33 billion tons) of carbon, or about 20 times the amount of carbon emitted from burning fossil fuels in the United States each year.

After the discovery, early signs from the Congolese government pointed to their interest in protecting the peatlands. Officials signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, committing to peatland conservation and enlisting the support of peatland-rich Indonesia in keeping them healthy.

“Peatlands have grown over the course of [10,000] years, and they can be destroyed in a matter of days if the land use is not sensitive to the nature of the peatlands,” Tim Christophersen, head of the freshwater, land and climate branch of U.N. Environment, said in a statement at the time.

Mining in Congo forest

A gorge in the Republic of Congo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

But in September 2018, the Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Hydrocarbons invited oil companies to bid for the chance to explore for oil in five blocks in the Cuvette Basin. One also encompasses Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, a well-known national park. The tender drew criticism from Greenpeace.

Now, with the recently signed letter of intent, Greenpeace and RFUK are concerned that the language in the agreement leaves the door open for continued oil and natural gas exploration, as well as full-on exploitation.

The organizations noted that the text allows for the conversion of high conservation value and high carbon stock forests “in case of the development of infrastructure and extractive industries outside the agro-industrial sector, which are deemed of vital interest to the national economy.” They also point to phrasing that calls for the “minimization” — rather than the outright prohibition — “of direct and indirect impacts of mining and hydrocarbon activities on carbon stocks and forest and peatlands biodiversity.”

“They definitely did not produce a letter of intent that is tightly protecting the peatlands or the forest,” Tal Harris, international communications coordinator with Greenpeace Africa, told Mongabay.

A spokesperson for CAFI pointed out that some of the oil licenses covering the peatlands date back to the mid-2000s, before the Cuvette peatlands had been mapped. The source said it was unrealistic to think that the government would cancel them. (Crude petroleum accounted for almost half of the value of the Republic of Congo’s exports in 2017, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.)

Forest elephants also live in the Cuvette peatlands. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

Forest elephants also live in the Cuvette peatlands.

Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

“We would like the government of the Republic of Congo to say, ‘OK, I will not undertake any activity on this area, and I will withdraw the existing licenses.’ But we are in the real world,” the spokesperson said, adding that canceling existing fossil fuel contracts was “not realistic.”

The source also took issue with the characterization of the language in the agreement as “soft.”

The spokesperson highlighted the commitments disallowing the conversion of high conservation value and high carbon stock forest for agriculture. The source also said that a major focus of the agreement was to “prevent” the drainage of the peatlands, and it requires that environmental impact studies be carried out before development.

“Now, the objective for us as CAFI is to support the country in precisely assessing the risk and to agree on the roadmap to monitor the progress against these commitments they made, including with the ministry in charge of the oil sector and the private sector,” the spokesperson said.

Mongabay’s requests for comment on the letter of intent from the Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Hydrocarbons were not answered.

“These are strong commitments,” the CAFI spokesperson said. “I’m not saying they’re perfect. I’m just saying that there are no easy solutions.”


Banner image of a river in the Congo Basin by Valerius Tygart via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citation:

Dargie, G. C., Lewis, S. L., Lawson, I. T., Mitchard, E. T. A., Page, S. E., Bocko, Y. E., & Ifo, S. A. (2017). Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542, 86. doi:10.1038/nature21048

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. Article licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. First published on Mongabay.


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