globalwitness-What lies beneath
How an oil project linked to the Republic of Congo’s corrupt rulers was obtained by one of Africa’s richest men in questionable circumstances — imperilling climate-critical peatland forests
This report is based on a joint investigation by Global Witness, Der Spiegel and Mediapart, in conjunction with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) media network.
- Claude Wilfrid Etoka, who manoeuvred out a rival to take control of the Ngoki oilfield, had company bank accounts closed down in France over corruption red flags, our investigation reveals.
- An environmental impact assessment almost entirely pre-dated the peatlands’ discovery with no analysis of the risk to peatlands from drilling – rendering it unfit for purpose.
- There is evidence oil reserves have been wildly exaggerated and may not be economically viable at all.
The oil-rig looks incongruous on the banks of the River Likouala-aux-Herbes, which meanders towards the River Congo through savannah floodplains and swamp forests. This is a place roamed by endangered forest elephants and lowland gorillas, described by one travel guide as “literally one of the most wild and remote regions of the planet by any scale or stretch of the imagination”. Beneath the dark waters of this idyll, frequented by fishermen in dug-out canoes, the Republic of Congo’s rulers claim there lies a vast oil reserve that will lure international investment and transform the country’s debt-riddled finances. But a wide-ranging investigation by Global Witness, in collaboration with Der Spiegel and Mediapart journalists, into the oil block named Ngoki - ‘crocodile’ in the local Lingala language – sheds new light on this oil project. Global Witness can reveal serious corruption risks, environmental assessments that are completely unfit for purpose, and expose claims of vast oil reserves as seemingly hollow. Oil production in this region would not only be environmentally harmful, but an investment every bit as perilous as these crocodile-infested waters.
The Cuvette Centrale is a vast swathe of forest and wetlands at the heart of the Congo Basin. It is critical in terms of biodiversity and the global climate, forming part of the world’s second largest tropical rainforest. In 2014 British scientists made the startling discovery that the region also holds the world’s largest tropical peatlands. The Congo Basin peatlands are crucial to the global effort to combat climate change. They have been estimated to store 30 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to three years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions. If this region were fully exploited by oil companies, much of this peatland would have to be drained to build roads and infrastructure, releasing stored carbon in the process. That makes the Cuvette one of the biggest carbon time bombs on the planet.
The region is also one of the world’s last frontiers for oil exploration. The governments of both the Republic of Congo and neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo have signed various exploration deals with oil majors in the Cuvette. But so far its oil reserves have remained largely unknown and unexplored, largely due to its extreme remoteness and Congo’s difficult business climate. Congo’s government has long been keen to develop an oil industry in this region. 2019 thus saw an ongoing bidding round for new oil investors there.
A startling oil ‘discovery'
In August 2019, dignitaries gathered in President Sassou-Nguesso’s sleepy hometown of Oyo to hear the announcement of a gigantic oil discovery. The Ngoki find would purportedly quadruple the country’s oil production, putting the Cuvette region firmly on the oil map.
President Sassou-Nguesso trumpeted the discovery in a televised address to the nation a few days later, claiming: “Our country has never ducked the obligation to protect the peatlands and has no intention of doing so.” This was despite Congo “still waiting” for financial compensation from richer nations for protecting these ecosystems, he said. The president was at pains to point out that Ngoki was located not on the peatlands but their “periphery”, insisting “innovations” meant oil could be produced in a way that would “limit the impact on the environment”.
Three weeks later, the president flew to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and sign a US $65m agreement to protect Congo’s forests and peatlands, as part of the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). CAFI is supported by donors including Norway, France and Germany. The visit made headlines for Sassou’s arrival at this climate meeting by private jet rented at an estimated €456,000. Yet the agreement did not rule out oil or mining activities in Congo’s peatlands, merely committing to grant the peatlands a “special legal status” by 2025. The threat of oil exploration in the Cuvette was apparently of little concern to Congo’s donors.