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Concerns arise that expanding drilling operations in DR Congo will lead to increased pollution.
Africa Science & Health

Concerns arise that expanding drilling operations in DR Congo will lead to increased pollution.

Every day, the oil drills near Adore Ngaka’s house serve as a constant reminder of all that he has had taken away. The mining in his village in the western region of Congo has contaminated the land, destroyed his harvest, and left his family in a desperate financial situation, according to Ngaka.

The farmer, who is 27 years old, gestures towards a small ear of corn in his garden. He claims that the size of the corn has been reduced by about half since oil operations began expanding in his village of Tshiende nearly a decade ago.

He stated that it was leading us towards destitution.

Congo, a mineral-rich nation in central Africa, is thought to have significant oil reserves, too. Drilling has so far been confined to a small territory on the Atlantic Ocean and offshore, but that’s expected to change if the government successfully auctions 30 oil and gas blocks spread around the country. Leaders say economic growth is essential for their impoverished people, but some communities, rights groups and environmental watchdogs warn that expanded drilling will harm the landscape and human health.

Residents of Moanda have reported an increase in pollution since Perenco, a French-British hydrocarbon company, began drilling in the area in 2000. They cite spills and leaks that have caused damage to the soil and the practice of flaring, which involves burning natural gas near drilling sites, as major contributors to the decline in air quality. According to them, the Congolese government has provided inadequate oversight in this matter.

Perenco stated that they follow global guidelines in their extraction techniques, which do not present any health hazards and any pollution has been minimal. The company also mentioned offering assistance in setting up a power plant that utilizes the natural gas to decrease flaring. The government did not provide a response regarding the suggested plant.

The official in charge of oil and gas in Congo, Didier Budimbu, stated that the government is dedicated to safeguarding the environment.

FILE - A family bakes bread in their village of Kinkazi, which has been impacted by oil drilling, outside Moanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dec. 24, 2023.

On December 24, 2023, a family in the village of Kinkazi, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, baked bread despite the negative effects of nearby oil drilling.

Congo is home to most of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s second-biggest, and most of the world’s largest tropical peatland, made up of partially decomposed wetlands plant material. Together, both capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide — about 1.5 billion tons a year, or about 3% of global emissions. More than a dozen of the plots up for auction overlap with protected areas in peatlands and rainforests, including the Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world’s rarest gorillas.

The authorities reported that there are 27 oil blocks currently accessible, totaling an estimated 22 billion barrels. Conservation organizations argue that permitting additional drilling on these lands would have adverse effects locally and globally.

Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafak, program director for Greenpeace Africa, stated that the commencement of any oil and gas project, regardless of location, contributes to the ongoing climate and natural emergency. She also noted that Perenco’s operations have failed to alleviate poverty but have, in fact, caused harm to the environment and negatively impacted the local community.

Environmental advocates stated that Congo possesses great potential to shift towards utilizing sustainable energy sources such as solar and small-scale hydroelectric power. The country is currently the top producer of cobalt, a vital element for batteries used in electric cars and other essential components for the worldwide shift towards renewable energy. However, mining for cobalt also poses potential environmental and humanitarian dangers.

Budimbu stated that it is not currently suitable to shift away from using fossil fuels as the country is still heavily dependent on them. He further explained that the dependency on fossil fuels will gradually be reduced over time.

FILE - A burning flare is visible at an oil extraction area located in Moanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dec. 23, 2023.

A flambeau is on fire at an oil drilling site in Moanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on December 23, 2023.

Moanda, a place abundant in diverse species, borders the Mangrove National Park, the sole protected marine area in the country. Perenco has been in question for many years, as local researchers, aid organizations, and the Senate of Congo have all reported instances of pollution dating back more than ten years. In 2022, two civil society groups, Sherpa and Friends of the Earth France, took legal action against Perenco for the pollution caused by their oil extraction. This lawsuit is currently ongoing.

During a rare visit by international media to the oil fields, including two villages near drilling, The Associated Press spoke with dozens of residents, local officials and rights organizations. Residents say drilling has inched closer to their homes and they have seen pipes break regularly, sending oil into the soil. They blame air and ground pollution for making it hard to cultivate crops and causing health problems such as skin rashes and respiratory infections.

According to reports, Perenco has promptly addressed incidents of leaks and spills, but has not effectively tackled underlying issues.

The AP reporters investigated drill sites, some of which were located within a few hundred meters of residential areas, and found that the pipes were exposed and rusting. They also observed at least four spots where natural gas was being flared, a method of regulating pressure by burning off excess gas, which is commonly used when it is not feasible or profitable to gather it. The AP did not witness any current instances of spills.

From 2012 to 2022, in Congo, Environmental Investigative Forum, a worldwide group of environmental journalists, determined that Perenco released over 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas into the atmosphere. This is equal to the carbon footprint of approximately 20 million Congolese. These findings were based on data collected from Skytruth, an organization that utilizes satellite images to track potential dangers to the Earth’s natural resources.

According to the International Energy Agency, the release of natural gas, consisting predominantly of methane, results in the emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon, and can have detrimental effects on human health.

According to reports from AP, villagers in Kinkazi have revealed that Perenco has been burying chemicals in a nearby pit for an extended period of time. The chemicals have since seeped into the soil and water. Local residents have presented photographs as evidence of the toxic substances before they were buried and have taken journalists to the location where they were disposed of. The community engaged in protests and strikes for four years before Perenco finally removed the chemicals from the site.

Many villagers were hesitant to give consent for the use of their names, citing concerns over potential repercussions from a business that provides part-time labor opportunities. Shortly after AP journalists arrived in the village, a community member reported receiving a phone call from a Perenco staff member inquiring about the nature of the gathering.

According to farmer Gertrude Tshonde, Perenco started disposing of chemicals close to Kinkazi in 2018 as retaliation for a nearby village’s refusal to give permission.

Tshonde reported receiving a call from individuals in Tshiende inquiring about allowing them to dispose of their waste in our vicinity. They raised concerns about the negative impact of waste on underground soil degradation.

According to Tshonde, her farm was located near a pit where chemicals were being disposed, causing her cassava crop to spoil.

It could not be confirmed by AP that there were chemicals buried at the location.

Mark Antelme, spokesperson for Perenco, has stated that the company does not dispose of chemicals by burying them underground. He also clarified that any concerns about the Kinkazi site are linked to waste dumping that occurred over two decades ago by a previous company. Antelme further stated that Perenco has not shifted their operations closer to residential areas, but rather some communities have gradually encroached upon drilling sites over time.

Furthermore, Antelme stated that the flaring conducted by the company does not emit methane into the air.

According to Perenco, the company plays a major role in supporting the development of Moanda and the surrounding country. As the exclusive energy provider in the area, Perenco invests approximately $250 million annually towards initiatives such as education, road development, medical staff training, and improving access to healthcare in isolated communities.

However, according to residents, some of the advantages presented are exaggerated. They claimed that a medical facility constructed by Perenco in a particular village lacks medication and the majority of individuals are unable to cover the cost of a doctor’s visit.

The locals express that Perenco’s compensation for the damages caused by the oil leak is insufficient.

The farmer, Tshonde, mentioned that she received approximately $200 as compensation when an oil spill destroyed her crops of mangoes, avocados, and maize eight years ago. However, her actual losses were more than twice that amount. The harm caused by Perenco’s activities has resulted in long-lasting damage to her land, forcing her to find alternative sources of income, such as selling trees for charcoal.

She mentioned that numerous other farmers have also experienced land degradation and are taking similar actions, resulting in a decline in tree cover.

According to Budimbu, Congo’s regulations prohibit the drilling of oil near residential areas and agricultural land. Oil companies are obligated to implement preventative measures and properly address any pollution caused by their operations. However, he did not mention any specific actions the government is taking in response to community grievances.

FILE - People collect water from a community pump in their village of Tshiende, which is affected by oil drilling, in Moanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dec. 23, 2023.

On December 23, 2023, residents of Tshiende village in Moanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo were seen collecting water from a communal pump in their community. This area has been impacted by oil drilling.

oneChinese — have expressed interest in the auction.

The auction for Congo’s assets, which began in July 2022, has faced difficulty in finding interested buyers. So far, three companies, two American and one Chinese, have shown interest in participating.

A person from Canada has taken control over three areas of methane gas in Lake Kivu, located on the border of Rwanda. The government previously stated in May that they intended to close these contracts, but has not provided a response to AP’s inquiries in January regarding the finalization of these deals.

The 27 oil blocks currently have no confirmed deals, and the deadline for showing interest has been extended until the end of this year. Perenco, which operates in the same province, withdrew from bidding on two blocks towards the end of last year. The reason for their withdrawal was not provided, but according to Africa Intelligence, Perenco deemed the blocks to be lacking in potential.

Perenco did not provide a response when questioned about potential pursuits of other blocks.

According to environmental experts, the bidding process may be delayed due to the challenging operating conditions in the country, where there is widespread conflict, particularly in the eastern region where violence has escalated. This is also where some of the blocks are situated.

Local organizations fighting for a cause are urging the government to address issues with Perenco first before allowing other companies to operate.

Alphonse Khonde, the coordinator for the Group of Actors and Actions for Sustainable Development, emphasized the need to observe progress within our company before placing trust in others.

The country of Congo has a background of corrupt practices. Despite its valuable mineral resources, very little has reached the general population. Congo is considered one of the world’s five most impoverished nations, with a majority of its 100 million citizens living on less than $2.15 per day, according to the World Bank.

According to Joe Eisen, the executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, certain groups have voiced concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the auctioning of blocks for development. These groups believe that this approach leaves local communities uninformed about the plans to exploit their lands and resources.

In certain communities, lack of job opportunities and essential services from the government has led to the consideration of risky options such as increasing oil drilling.

The village of Kimpozia, located near the auction site, is home to approximately 150 people who reside in the forest. Unfortunately, there is no school or hospital nearby and residents must endure a strenuous five-hour hike up steep hills or travel by motorbike to reach the nearest health clinic. Additionally, it takes several hours of walking to reach the nearest school. Louis Wolombassa, the chief of the village, has expressed the need for assistance in building roads and other resources.

“If they arrive and provide what is desired, allow them to proceed,” he stated.