MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) – Parts of a famous tropical peatland forest in the Congo Basin that plays a crucial role in Africa’s climate system are going up for oil and gas auction in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Thursday.
The DRC government will auction 30 oil and gas blocks in the Cuvette-Centrale Peatlands in the Congo Basin forest – the world’s largest tropical peatland. Peatland soils are known as ‘carbon sinks’ because packed into them are huge stores of carbon that are released into the atmosphere when the ecosystem is disturbed.
Some of the areas, or blocks, marked for oil leasing lie within Africa’s iconic first conservation area, Virunga National Park, established in 1925 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the last bastion of mountain gorillas.
The Congo Basin covers 530 million hectares (1.3 billion acres) in Central Africa and represents 70% of the continent’s forested land. It hosts over a thousand bird species and more primates than anywhere else in the world, including the great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.
People are also at risk. Members of the Mbuti and Baka people may be displaced or evicted.
The move by Congo-Kinshasa’s hydrocarbons ministry has angered environmentalists and climate activists who say oil drilling will pose significant risks to a continent already inundated with harsh climate impacts. The Center for International Forest Research puts the massive Cuvette-Centrale carbon sink at 145,000 square kilometers (56,000 square miles) and said it stores up to 20 years’ worth of the carbon emissions emitted by the United States.
Other blocks DRC plans to auction include some located on Lake Kivu, Lake Tanganyika and one in a coastal region adjacent to the Albertine-Grabben region, the western side of the East African Rift Valley system.
“These are the last refuges of nature’s biodiversity,” and our last carbon sinks, said Ken Mwathe, of BirdLife International in Africa. “We must not sacrifice these valuable natural assets to the detriment of development.”
The auction of part of the Congo Basin rainforest, which represents 5% of global tropical forests, comes barely a week after the International Union for Conservation of Nature hosted the first Africa Protected Areas Congress in Kigali, Rwanda. There, the participants decided to strengthen the protection of Africa’s most important biodiversity hotspots.
The DRC is one of 17 nations in the world classified as “megadiverse”. Last September, at the World Conservation Congress meeting in France, 137 resolutions called the “Marseille Manifesto” highlighted the significant role the Congo Basin is expected to play in the global commitment to protect 30% of the Earth by 2030.
Last year at the UN climate conference COP26, a dozen donors called the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use pledged about $1.5 billion “to work collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s carbon sponges are also at risk from large-scale logging, agricultural expansion and the planned diversion of Congo River water into the shrinking Lake Chad.
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