Rainforests in the Congo Basin are under threat as the DRC opens land to oil, gas drilling

On a multi-country tour of Africa this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been making the case that the U.S. can be a quote "equal partner" with African nations. In that vein, he recently announced a new partnership between the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Congo in an effort to protect some of that nation's natural treasures. William Brangham reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    On a multicountry tour of Africa this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been making the case that the U.S. can be a — quote — "equal partner" with African nations.

    In that vein, he recently announced a new partnership with Democratic Republic of Congo in an effort to protect some of that nation's natural treasures.

    It's one of the most famous and extraordinary places on Earth. The Virunga National Forest, established in 1925, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. This area, nested in the Congo Basin, is Africa's oldest national park. It's home to the only mountain gorillas left on the planet. But parts of this precious land are now up for auction.

    Congo is selling 30 oil and gas drilling blocks across the Congo Basin, including some in the Virunga Park. The Congo Basin covers 1.3 billion acres. It spans across six nations, and its trees and soils and peat absorb about 4 percent of the world's annual carbon emissions.

    The auction was announced last May in a video posted by the government on social media, encouraging oil and gas companies to bid. This week, on a visit to the capital, Kinshasa, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Congolese officials to prioritize environmental conservation.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: We had concerns about the announcement of the auction of these oil and gas exploration blocks. Some of the blocks infringe on sensitive rain forest and peatland areas, including in the Virunga National Park.

  • William Brangham:

    U.S. and Congolese officials have agreed to oversee the oil and gas extraction to ensure the operations are done as sensitively as possible. But Congo's auction plans have enraged environmental activists.

  • Irene Wabiwa, Greenpeace Africa:

    This will have obviously very bad and harmful environmental impact.

  • William Brangham:

    Irene Wabiwa is with Greenpeace Africa, based in Kinshasa.

  • Irene Wabiwa:

    Virunga, it's a very emblematic and national park. It's also a carbon sink that is fighting against climate change.

    And if oil blocks are opening, are opened in this area, that means we would be seeing a lot of carbon to be released into the atmosphere. Also, many communities are depending on Virunga National Park for their survival.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you have a sense of how those communities in these regions feel about this idea?

  • Irene Wabiwa:

    They were shocked to hear that the DRC government is planning to open up their land for oil blocks. They were not aware at all. They were not consulted. And, for them, any kind of development that do not doesn't involve them from the beginning is not a development for them.

  • William Brangham:

    This decision to sell off forest land also conflicts with a pledge the government made less than a year ago at the last U.N. climate change summit.

    There, former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi signed a landmark deal to protect the country's rain forests. In a joint statement back then, the Democratic Republic of Congo committed to — quote — "halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2031." The deal included international pledges of $500 million.

    But Russia's invasion of Ukraine, combined with COVID-19, has sent food and energy prices soaring and exacerbated Congo's already dire humanitarian crisis. According to the World Bank, three-quarters of Congo's 80 million people live on less than $2 a day.

    With these leases, Congo's president sees an economic opportunity.

    Felix Tshisekedi, President of Congo (through translator): It is time for us to follow in the footsteps of those nations, which, before us, were able to make their endowments of hydrocarbon resources a real spearhead for their economies.

  • Irene Wabiwa:

    It is really noble for the DRC government to seek for the development of the country. And being a Congolese, I really want my country to be developed, but not for the price of the future of the planet, not for the price of the life of millions of communities.

  • William Brangham:

    For those communities and the world, Wabiwa says Congo should make other choices.

  • Irene Wabiwa:

    We have a lot of solar. We have a lot of potential for renewable energy. This is something of the green development path that the DRC government should be considering, instead of jeopardizing its forest that is critical for the future of the humanity.

  • William Brangham:

    But, for now, the so-called lungs of humanity seem to be under threat.

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