A swampy swath of the Congo Basin has become a new battleground between those seeking revenue from natural resources and those concerned about keeping them in the ground.
The Cuvette Centrale spans both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo, encompassing a mix of peatlands, water-soaked forests and rare biodiversity. Mapped and studied only in the past decade, scientists have since learned that the peatlands here contain one of the world’s most carbon-rich ecosystems.
This carbon density caught the interest of the government of the DRC, which put up for auction 27 blocks of land for oil exploration and three for gas at the end of July – including nine in the Cuvette Centrale. More information on these nine blocks, including data and regulatory frameworks ahead of licensing, is expected to be announced at Africa Oil Week in Cape Town, South Africa, 3 to 7 October.
Researchers say the exploration could be catastrophic for peatland communities and global efforts to limit climate change. “The loss of this carbon to the atmosphere, [combined] with the actual emissions from the burning of the oil itself, would make this one of the most polluting fossil fuels ever mined,” says Bart Crezee, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds.
The carbon importance of the Congo Basin
Crezee co-authored a recent paper published in Nature that found the Cuvette Centrale and its carbon stock to be 15 percent bigger than was previously estimated. Following on an earlier groundbreaking study of the Congo Basin peatlands in 2017, Crezee and other scientists conducted the first extensive mapping and measuring of peatlands in the DRC. Their fieldwork and satellite measurements yielded new insights into the size and thickness of the DRC peatlands, which have a deep riverine setting.
The Cuvette Centrale — the world’s largest tropical peatland complex — is now estimated to cover 167,000 square kilometers, or about the size of Wales and England combined. Overall, the peatlands here store the equivalent of three years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions in its soil. With the DRC home to two-thirds of the Cuvette Centrale, “two-thirds of this carbon, 19.6 billion tons, is in the DRC,” says Crezee.
The DRC government has however said that revenue is needed for development in the country, which is considered one of the world’s poorest; about 60 million people in the country live on less than USD 2 a day. As the DRC is home to one of Central Africa’s largest oil reserves after Angola, the rise in oil prices following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine spurred the government’s interest in pursuing the auction despite concern from environmental groups. According to the country’s oil minister, the auction could bring in at least 16 million barrels and be worth more than USD 650 billion. The DRC currently produces about 25,000 barrels per day, mostly at reserves along the Atlantic coast.
In response to concerns about such exploration, in August the DRC established a working group with the U.S. to develop ways to grow the DRC’s economy and protect its rainforests and peatlands. As part of this, both the DRC and the U.S. stressed the importance of impact reports on the environment and society before beginning any extractive projects.
Threats to the Cuvette Centrale
Formed over thousands of years, the swampy forests of the Cuvette Centrale are permanently flooded. Oxygen is not able reach the soil beneath the water, where decayed vegetation forms the thick peat. This wetland environment supports rich biodiversity, including rare wildlife such as lowland dwarf crocodiles and bonobos, and provides livelihoods and food for Indigenous groups and local communities. Local residents also do not hold rights to the land despite living in the region for generations, underscoring the lack of tenure and social protection.
A changing climate and human activity also present challenges to keeping the water-logged ground intact. Hotter weather and less rainfall as part of the changing climate could dry out the landscape. Meanwhile, drainage-based farming, logging, fires and new infrastructure are also concerns. Oil and gas drilling would create new hazards including roads in previously inaccessible areas, which could amplify hunting or other resource extraction.
“If the water balance of the peat swamp gets disturbed because of road or pipeline construction needed for exploration or drilling, that risks drying out large parts of the peatlands, which would release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere,” says Greta Dargie, a research fellow at Congopeat and co-author of the Nature article. Dargie was among those that originally mapped the extent of the Cuvette Centrale. “There is the risk from pollution if there were to be oil spills, which in a wetland environment would be much harder to contain and clean up.”
At present, only 8 percent of the Cuvette Centrale lies in protected areas. Sections up for auction also overlap with the Virunga National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the world’s only wild population of mountain gorillas. As the DRC grapples with one of the world’s highest levels of deforestation, the country received USD 500 million in funding through the Central African Forest Initiative last year at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The Congo Basin rainforest (the world’s second-largest) and the Cuvette Central are also a part of a larger effort to protect Central Africa’s forests. Such efforts could be undermined if oil and gas exploration go ahead.
“Oil drilling, or even oil exploration, would have a destructive impact on a very fragile and little-understood ecosystem that is vital both locally and for the global climate,” says Crezee, while stressing the need for strengthening local land rights and protections. “The peatlands are actually an asset against climate change, helping to take up carbon from the atmosphere.”