DRC: what can Pope Francis do about oil projects in protected areas

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RDC : que peut le pape François face aux projets pétroliers dans les aires protégées©Présidence RDC

The head of the Catholic Church began a five-day tour of the African continent on Tuesday 31 January 2023. Before visiting South Sudan, Pope Francis will first go to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the largest Catholic country in Africa. On this occasion, environmental activists are seeking the Pope's support to stop oil and gas exploration in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Congolese DR Minister of Hydrocarbons, Didier Budimbu, published on 15 January 2023, the names of three North American companies, selected following a call for tenders to exploit three gas blocks in Lake Kivu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They are Symbion Power & Red, for the Makelele block, Winds Exploration and Production LLC (Idjwi block) and Alfajiri Energy Corporation for the Lwandjofu block.

The award of these blocks is part of the plan to auction 27 oil blocks and three gas blocks adopted by the DRC at the 40th meeting of its Council of Ministers in July 2022. But the oil project does not please nature conservationists. The latter are all the more incensed because nine of the blocks up for auction are located in the sensitive ecosystem of the Central Cuvette, in the Congo River basin, the second largest forest area in the world after the Amazon. They pointed to the serious risks that oil exploration activities pose to the environment, endangered wildlife and the livelihoods of local people.

An environmentalist pope, called to the rescue

DRC: what can Pope Francis do about oil projects in protected areas©Présidence RDC

As part of his 40th apostolic journey, Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, arrived on the African continent on Tuesday 31 January 2023. And it is Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, which hosts the first stage of this trip. In the wake of their multiple lobbying actions, environmental activists who oppose the Congolese government’s oil and gas projects are seeking the pope’s support.

“We are concerned about the continued pressure from our government to intensify fossil fuel exploration in our country, which will have serious consequences for our environment, wildlife, people and climate. Our protected areas are under threat, both from oil exploration in Virunga National Park and from the oil and gas blocks the government is auctioning in the Congo Basin,” says Bonaventure Bondo, a climate justice activist in Kinshasa.

Read also-COP 27: Pope Francis invites Christians to a month of ecological conversion

“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the coming years, emissions of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example by substituting fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources. Oil and gas exploration in the DRC is setting us up for further climate disasters that will disproportionately affect the poor. We are therefore coming together to call for an end to unjust actions aimed at benefiting the few,” said Ashley Kitisya, the anti-fossil fuel campaigner at the Laudato Si Movement, a Catholic organisation.

Pope Francis has often shown himself to be sensitive to the ecological cause. During the 2022 edition of the “Time of Creation” from 1 September to 4 October 2022, the pontiff placed the celebration under the sign of the fight against climate change. He called on Catholics and Christians of other churches to take a step towards ecological conversion.

Boris Ngounou

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