In the DRC’s forests, a tug-of-war between oil and aid
- At the COP26 climate summit, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Féelix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo announced a $500 million aid package to protect forests in the Central African country.
- Part of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, the announcement was one of the top headlines at the summit.
- Now, with the DRC set to auction off oil blocs in carbon-rich peatlands, questions are being raised about whether the package addresses the threat posed by industrial logging and oil drilling.
It was a banner moment at COP26, one of the climate summit’s headline achievements. On stage, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson sat with President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo as the two put their pens to paper. As a part of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use — signed by more than 100 countries — a consortium of wealthy donors that included Norway, Germany and the U.K. were committing to a $500 million aid package meant to slow deforestation in the DRC.
“With its forests, water and mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a genuine ‘Solution Country’ to the climate crisis,” Tshisekedi said.
But just a few short months later, the exuberant tone struck at COP26 has given way to a gloomier assessment of the DRC’s seriousness about the agreement’s intent, and whether it will ultimately prove compatible with the country’s efforts to tackle chronic poverty and manage its resource wealth. In April, the Ministry of Hydrocarbons shocked observers when it announced the auction of 16 new oil exploration blocs, including three that overlap with the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, which holds one of the largest carbon deposits on the planet. The announcement follows the DRC’s controversial decision to lift its moratorium on new logging concessions, which provoked an outcry from environmental NGOs last year.
To some observers, the moves are a red flag for the DRC’s commitment to being a “solution country,” and raise questions about whether the expensive new aid package will address some of the most pressing threats to its forests. With the world struggling to balance state sovereignty and global economic inequality with a worsening climate crisis, the answers will have implications far beyond the DRC’s borders.
“The question really has to be asked about how serious the DRC government is in engaging with these so-called forest protection schemes, and whether they’re kind of playing the donors along,” said Simon Counsell, former director of the Rainforest Foundation UK. “And if that is the case, why the donors aren’t seeing that and being more determined in their dialogue with the government.”
Oil wealth and a global green thumb
The new stream of forest funding for the DRC is set to be channeled through the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), a multilateral donor project that was set up in 2015 to finance REDD+ in the Congo Basin. The project covers six countries: Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and the DRC, where the bulk of CAFI funds have been disbursed so far.
According to CAFI’s latest annual report, as of the end of 2020 the fund had received $321 million from six donors. The single largest donor to CAFI by far is Norway, which supplied nearly three-quarters of that total. Of the $232 million that had been approved or spent, 85% went to projects in the DRC, where the bulk of the Congo Basin rainforest is located.
Norway’s leading role in CAFI is part of a broader package of climate aid the oil-producing nation has delivered to 70 forest-rich countries since 2008. Wealthy countries are often criticized for failing to deliver on their promises to finance climate action, but Norway stands out: for more than a decade, the Scandinavian country has put its money where its mouth is, spending billions of dollars on forest protection schemes across the world. Norway’s International Forests and Climate Initiative (NICFI) finances REDD+ payments, supports institutional reform inside government agencies responsible for forests, and funds a dizzying array of projects on the ground.
All that spending has produced notable achievements. Last year, for example, CAFI paid Gabon $17 million for maintaining low rates of deforestation. But at times it has also exposed NICFI to criticism when projects it finances either show mixed results or are hampered by changing political dynamics in the countries where it works. In 2018, a report by Norway’s Office of the Auditor General found that some of NICFI’s projects “have uncertain feasibility and effect.” Norway’s commitment to the planet’s forests is beyond question. But what it has to show for that commitment is a more complicated matter.
In the DRC, nearly all of the funds disbursed by CAFI are being channeled through major international development organizations, including the World Bank, the FAO, and AFD, the French development agency. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) plays a particularly sizeable role, accounting for nearly a third of CAFI’s financing.
While support for local organizations and Indigenous communities is included in some of CAFI’s programming, they are not direct grant recipients. And due to donor concerns over the potential for corruption, the DRC government also does not recieve funds directly from CAFI or implement projects on its own.
That reluctance to channel funds into the DRC’s coffers has been a point of contention between the government and CAFI’s donors. In the run-up to the COP26 announcement last year, DRC Environment Minister Ève Bazaiba openly questioned whether a new round of forest-related aid would provide tangible benefits for the country and criticized the amount of money being spent by CAFI on administrative costs.
“You can understand the donors’ reticence over this, but on the other hand, if [the DRC government] doesn’t get any extra resources for doing anything, how do they expect things to change?” Counsell said.
Pen in one hand, drill in the other
The disconnect between the DRC’s COP26 rhetoric and the practical reality of its economic agenda came into sharp focus in April, when it announced that 16 oil blocs would be placed up for auction later this year. Nine of those blocs overlap with the Cuvette Centrale, and three with a sprawling complex of peatlands there that Greenpeace says store carbon deposits equivalent to 15 years’ worth of emissions from the United States.
“It’s really drilling into a carbon bomb, as the cliché goes. It would be devastating,” said Tal Harris, international communications coordinator for Greenpeace Africa.
According to the DRC’s minister of hydrocarbons, the 16 blocs could contain 16 billion barrels of oil — a reserve worth around three-quarters of a trillion dollars at current prices. While much of the money earned by exploiting the reserve would wind up in the pockets of oil and gas companies, a sizeable portion would also go directly into DRC government bank accounts, with its leaders unencumbered by any restrictions on how to spend it. For the DRC, whose total government budget is less than $10 billion a year and which consistently ranks in the top five poorest countries on Earth, there is little incentive to pass on such a windfall, “solution country” or not.
And while the decision has been sharply criticized by environmental groups, DRC officials do not appear to be in the mood to listen. Last year, in response to an open letter urging CAFI to withhold funding from the DRC unless it agreed to scrap plans to lift its moratorium on new logging concessions, Minister Bazaiba told Sky News that the government had “no lessons to learn about our resources from an NGO” and said that it “hoped to leave development aid behind.”
The looming auction epitomizes a dynamic currently playing out across the world. In countries where extreme poverty coincides with vast tropical forests — along with the valuable mineral and hydrocarbon deposits that often lie underneath them — prioritizing the environment over the material rewards of extraction is a hard sell. Many have expressed resentment over what they see as hypocritical moralizing from residents of wealthy countries that often industrialized by exploiting their own natural resources.
“I think that countries in the Global South are sick and tired of being lectured by donor countries and their civil society, particularly when they’re disconnected from the ground and have an ideological position on environmental policies,” said one forest policy analyst who has a working relationship with CAFI and asked to remain anonymous.
Outcry or not, the DRC’s decision to open up the Cuvette Centrale and its peatlands to oil exploration looks unlikely to be rescinded. In a tweet announcing the auction, the Ministry of Hydrocarbons tagged the French supermajor Total, and last year the minister, Didier Ntubuanga, told The Washington Post that “we cannot sacrifice the economy for the sake of the environment.”
While it’s unclear how much carbon would be released by exploiting oil reserves in the peatlands, it would require the building of roads and other infrastructure that would likely threaten the region’s biodiversity and lead to increased secondary deforestation.
“Once oil is found in large quantities, there’s going to be pressure to put in the infrastructure and pipelines and the rest of it to get the stuff out,” Counsell said.
If the plans move forward, they will also raise the temperature of existing questions over the effectiveness of CAFI and whether the $500 million pledged at COP26 is capable of protecting the DRC’s forests from emerging threats.
“It’s not only about corruption and greed,” said the forest policy analyst. “These countries are in a position where they don’t necessarily want to be more dependent on aid, and they want to exploit their resources.”
Protecting forests, but from whom?
In the letter of intent signed by CAFI and the DRC government late last year, preserving high-value forests and peatlands is listed as one of the agreement’s objectives. But while the agreement explicitly restricts the development of plantations inside of peatland areas, there is no similar commitment by the DRC to avoid oil or mining projects there. Advocates say that’s part of an overall problem with CAFI’s focus, which is largely geared toward reducing deforestation related to small-scale farming and fuelwood cultivation.
“The agreement has some positive elements to it, but it greenlights a lot of negative actions, among them the lifting of the moratorium on new logging concessions, but also oil,” Harris said. “And it was never clear if these issues were overlooked or actually discussed and the donor countries gave up on trying to convince the Congolese.”
While deforestation rates in the DRC have traditionally been low when compared to other tropical countries, it still lost around 5% of its primary forest between 2002 and 2020. Most researchers have long pointed the finger at local agricultural practices, which are exacerbated by a growing population in need of food and firewood. But in 2020 the University of Maryland released a study suggesting that logging, mining and plantation agriculture were responsible for up to 10 times as much deforestation in the DRC than had previously been assumed.
In April, a long-delayed audit of forestry concessions in the DRC revealed that at least 18 concessions had been illegally issued in violation of the moratorium. And last month, a joint investigation by Mongabay, El País and Planeta Futuro found evidence of Chinese-owned companies engaging in illegal logging of endangered tree species in northern DRC.
While some of CAFI’s funding has been allocated to forest monitoring initiatives and the establishment of community-run forests, as of 2020 the two largest line items were alternative agriculture projects and family planning. CAFI’s emphasis on the latter — limiting population growth in forested areas — has been particularly controversial in the DRC.
“You have 33 million dollars that have been spent on workshops on demography and the purchase of inputs to limit births, so that the population does not damage the forest,” Minister Bazaiba said in a fiery press conference last year.
CAFI’s approach is rooted in research on local drivers of deforestation in the Congo Basin, and in its written materials it stresses the importance of financing projects that address the full spectrum of forest loss. But the agreement unveiled at COP26 still allows for nearly 700,000 hectares (1.73 million acres) of deforestation per year, with an unspecified reduction by the end of 2023. Advocates say that by failing to be tougher on industrial logging and mining, the initiative runs the risk of neglecting the threat posed by the expansion of these two sectors.
“Road building — which is most often connected with commercial logging — is what’s opening up the forest,” Counsell said. “That’s what’s inviting colonists and farmers in to finish off the forest after selective logging happens.”
Some observers say that the DRC is a complicated place to work, and that whatever its shortcomings, without CAFI’s support the country’s forests would have few powerful friends.
“I do believe that in the DRC there are people who are seriously concerned about the forest, and they’re real environmentalists that also understand the social and economic importance of protecting biodiversity,” said the forest policy analyst.
But others say that the new $500 million aid package was announced before donors had the chance to really understand the impact of what they’ve already spent.
“It was deliberated on until the last moment. The Congolese government knew that the donors were in a rush to present something to the cameras at the first two days of COP, and that’s part of why the agreement is so flawed,” Harris said. “It’s not entirely negative, it’s positive in principle that donors are engaged. But all of those caveats having been said, it’s a botched agreement.”
Neither CAFI’s secretariat nor the UNDP responded to Mongabay’s emailed requests for comment.
For Norway and CAFI’s other donors, there is little margin for error. If the DRC isn’t properly incentivized to protect its forests, the consequences will be felt globally, and what was a hopeful moment at COP26 will join a sad procession of expensive failures.
“It needs to be mutually beneficial,” the analyst said. “If the DRC doesn’t see the value of protecting its forests, it’s not going to do so. It needs to be a win-win situation where the DRC sees what it’s going to get from it, and not something that’s externally imposed in a top-down manner.”
Banner image: The Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the Republic of Congo, image courtesy of ITPC.
Related series from Mongabay: See John Cannon’s 4-part series about the peatlands of the Congo Basin here.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Who benefits from resource extraction in the DRC? Listen here:
Note: This article was amended to clarify that while nine of the proposed oil blocs overlap with the Cuvette Centrale, only three overlap with its peatlands complex.