The Democratic Republic of Congo is impoverished: 73% of its nearly 100 million people live on less than US$2 a day. But it has one asset that the Global North really values – its rainforests, which absorb 4% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions and therefore delay or prevent climate collapse.
Congo wants to increase its oil development from 25,000 barrels a day to 1 million barrels – something that would improve the lives of its people and perhaps replace some Russian oil. But Western nations and environmentalists are shocked by the idea, thinking it would destroy the country’s rainforests. But most of these areas are theoretically protected by national law. Congo is not just an emerging nation. It is a sovereign nation that says that selling oil would allow it to advance economically and socially.
The irony is that the richest countries speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they have pledged $1.5 billion in 2021 to protect these rainforests. On the other hand, the United States, the European Union and China are buying cheap Congo timber – and sometimes illegally. The threat to these rainforests – these natural CO2 vacuums – is not oil. They are voracious consumers. Worse still, it’s a modern version of colonialism in which Congo gets pennies for its wood while buyers manufacture and sell the finished products at premium prices.
“Large areas of forest are being cut down because our people need to live. They live in poverty and need energy,” says Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, a climate specialist at Congo’s Ministry of the Environment, in an interview with this writer.
“They are clearing the forest for food and fuel,” he adds. “They cut firewood for cooking and heating. Only 9% to 10% of our population has electricity. We believe that the country has a sovereign right to use natural resources to reduce poverty and increase economic growth. It is false to tell us otherwise.” If the country can increase its wealth, it will have the means to protect its rainforests.
The average age of a Congolese is 18 years. Most lack the formal education and skills that would enable them to survive in a modern economy. About one in five people have a job that pays a salary. Sub-Saharan Africa is fraught with poverty. But one in six of them lives in Congo. For example, many workers mine lithium, cobalt and copper – the things that go into electric vehicle batteries. Richer countries will buy these minerals at cheap prices. But they assemble them and sell the finished product to automakers like Tesla
To be clear, Congo has banned logging since 2002. But enforcing the law is difficult because the country is vast and the government does not have the resources to monitor it properly. Illegal logging will continue as long as the United States, China and the European Union want virgin wood for things like floors, furniture or packaging.
A 2014 Chatham House study found that 87% of logging in Congo was illegal. The country lost about 1.2 million acres of rainforest in 2020, adds Global Forest Watch.
“International companies, whose supply chain demands continue to drive the destruction of forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond, must support local efforts to develop conservation-based economies and protect some of the most vital ecosystems on the planet,” says Nicole. Rycroft, director of Canopy, a nonprofit environmental organization that works with companies to move supply chains away from forests, in an interview. The aim is to build “robust economies based on conservation rather than those that depend on the depletion of natural resources”.
There are a few ways to stop illegal logging. For starters, Congo could do what Gabon did – ban the export of raw wood. Instead, I would finish the wood and sell the final product or high-quality furniture. Companies can also prioritize sustainable packaging.
Importantly, the Global North could pay rainforest nations to monitor and maintain their trees. To that end, REDD+ rewards countries for saving their rainforests. They count their trees and define strategies to stop deforestation before they can sell carbon credits. It is true that Congo is still in the evaluation phase, which is why it must rely on direct payments.
Billions have been pledged since 2009. And last year, the developed world pledged $1.5 billion between 2021 and 2025 to protect the Congo Basin. Congo has to take steps to stop deforestation – difficult to do without adequate resources. The money never arrived. Norway, however, invested US$ 150 million in the country. But Mpanu says only about 30% of that money makes it there. Administrative costs eat away at the rest, leaving the Global South with little faith.
According to the OECD, between 2008 and 2017, the most prosperous countries pledged to give Central Africa $2 billion to protect their forests. Germany, the European Union and the United States led the collection efforts, paying a large part of the US$806 million. But the report says the Congo Basin received only 11.5% of the money intended to sustain forests and preserve nature. Most of the money protected the Amazon Basin and Southeast Asia Basin.
At last year’s global climate meeting, rainforest nations generally committed to reversing deforestation trends by 2030 — supported by $20 billion in grants from public-private interests. In fact, commercial logging is responsible for at least 20% of global deforestation. But exporting only finished products and relying more on sustainable packaging would reduce that. Companies like Nestlé, IKEA and Unilever are committed to sustainable solutions and saving trees.
Still, the Global North is hypocritical. It requires change. However, it also requires raw wood and raw materials. Which is?
“We are between a rock and a difficult place,” says Mpanu. “Congo is part of the solution to the global climate crisis because of our standing forests. But we need to look at the levers that will generate jobs and income while still allowing us to manage our forests and reduce poverty. Congo already has offshore oil: 25,000 barrels a day. If we start extracting, we will reach 1 million barrels a day.”
Oil development accounts for 4% of Congo’s $10 billion budget. If it increased production to 1 million barrels a day, it would alleviate economic stress. “We want to have an informed discussion,” says Mpanu.
That means implementing best practices and directional drilling, which would leave behind a benign environmental footprint. Congo is committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 21% by 2030 from a 2010 baseline. At the same time, Congo is planting millions of new trees. Some potential oil deposits are in tropical forests, which would require surgical drilling. But some areas are off limits. This includes three national parks – each the size of Belgium.
“We will not tolerate climate and environmental colonialism. Oil will not destroy forests,” says Mpanu. “Money can accelerate our sustainability goals – just as it did for Norway. Before criticizing, come to us: there is no running water, no roads and no electricity. The government will demand carbon neutrality and our oil partners will have to offset the greenhouse gases they emit by funding reforestation and conservation.”
Without new industries, direct payments or sales of carbon credits to maintain tropical forests, the cycle of poverty will never end. Climate change is economically and socially disruptive – similar to COVID19, but with potentially irreversible consequences. It is no longer a luxury to mull over these threats. Now we are seeing the dangers – record temperatures around the world, raging wildfires, melting ice caps and flash floods.
The Congo Basin is the Earth’s lung – the natural way to clean the atmosphere. If its rainforests are not maintained, the tipping point will soon arrive and there will be massive repercussions. Investing in Congo doesn’t just mean new consumers for global products. It means something much more – stabilizing the planet.