The Gorilla Project Podcast: Episode #2

This article will give you a sneak preview of some stories we’re developing based on recent news reports and research papers.

Congo to Auction Land to Oil Companies

In the last episode of the Gorilla Project podcast, you heard the story of when a group of habituated chimpanzees attacked a group of gorillas in Loango National Park in Gabon. The chimps killed one infant gorilla during the first attack and ate another during the second attack. The episode starred the scientist Lara Southern, who witnessed both incidents and wrote the research paper “Lethal Coalitionary attacks of Chimpanzees on Gorillas in The Wild”. In it, she cited the Emma Bush paper explaining the attacks’ possible root cause. The Bush paper detailed how climate change was causing the lowest average daily temperature (in another national park in Gabon called Lopé) to rise by 0.25 degrees per decade. The trees in Lopé required the thermometer to fall below a certain threshold as a temperature cue to know when to produce fruit. Since the temperature had risen, the trees stopped knowing it was a fruiting season. As a result, researchers went from seeing approximately one in every ten trees with fruit in 1987 to only 1 in 50 fruit-bearing trees in 2018. Less fruit led to less food for frugivorous animals like elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees. For example, the study stated that the body mass of the elephants in the park fell by 11 percent. The podcast argued that the same fruit shortage phenomenon witnessed in Lopé National Park might have caused increased food competition between chimps and gorillas in Loango National Park.

The public reaction to the episode leads to more questions

A post on Reddit linking to an article about this episode received over 1.4 million views. There was a lively discussion in the comments section in which people proposed counterarguments based on information they gleaned from the podcast. A few commenters seemed to need more clarification on the climate change findings in the Emma Bush paper, so we originally planned to follow Episode One with an episode based on her research and (hopefully) invite her to be a guest on the show.

Congo announces drilling

But then, on July 24, 2022, Ruth Maclean and Dionne Searcey released an article in the New York Times that attracted a great deal of attention titled “Congo to Auction Land to Oil Companies: ‘Our Priority Is Not to Save the Planet’”. The article’s subtitle read: ‘Peatlands and rainforests in the Congo Basin protect the planet by storing carbon. Now, in a giant leap backward for the climate, they’re being auctioned off for drilling.’ According to Searcey and MacLean’s article, the government of the DRC had planned to auction off vast amounts of land in and around the Congo River Basin to capitalize on the demand for fossil fuels. Many of you remember the film “Virunga,” which showed the trouble the rangers in the DRC’s Virunga National Park had fending off the oil companies who wanted to drill there. The New York Times article stated that the DRC government would auction oil and gas blocks affecting Virunga and the tropical peatlands. The forests and peatlands of the Congo River Basin store vast amounts of carbon. According to scientists, if they mine it for oil, they will release the carbon into the air and displace or kill the gorillas who live there.

Greenpeace predicts a global climate catastrophe

Greenpeace Africa describes the peatlands as “a biodiversity hotspot containing about 30 gigatons of carbon.” The article quoted Irene Wabiwa of Greenpeace in Kinshasa, saying, “If oil exploitation takes place in these areas, we must expect a global climate catastrophe, and we will all just have to watch helplessly.”

Congo reneges on their 10-year agreement

Eight months before making this decision, Congo’s president Félix Tshisekedi attended the global climate summit and endorsed a 10-year agreement to protect its rainforest. The deal included international pledges of 500 million dollars for Congo from the international community. Here’s a quote about the climate summit from the UN website describing this agreement:

“Through this new multi-year partnership, the DRC aims to first cap forest cover loss at its 2014-2018 average and ensure that deforestation continues to decline. The partnership will also promote the regeneration of 8 million hectares of degraded land and forests, and place 30% of national areas under a protection status, including areas where local communities undertake efforts to manage forests sustainably.”

They even signed a letter of intent. It had 12 concrete objectives. Let’s draw your attention to 3 of them:

# 1) High value forests, peatlands and community forest concessions are systematically incorporated into land-use plans, with the aim of maintaining the important role they play.

# 2) Transparency in natural resources governance is enhanced through the legal review of existing agriculture, logging, mine and oil concessions, the cancellation of illegal ones, as well as the publication of all contracts (linked to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – EITI).

#3) New social and environmental standards are implemented to reduce the impact of mining and oil investments on forests and biodiversity, with reinforced measures in high value forests and peatlands. Any activity incompatible with conservation objectives in Protected Areas is BANNED.

According to the New York Times article, President Tshisekedi said the following at that summit:

“With its forests, water and mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a genuine “Solution Country” to the climate crisis. To protect our forest and promote its sustainable management, our priority, backed by this new partnership, is to strengthen governance and transparency across all land use sectors.”

But then came the war in Ukraine. The European Union’s ban on Russian oil and natural gas resources made world leaders search for alternative places to source fossil fuels. For example, Norway has increased oil production and planned more offshore drilling; the US president visited the Saudis to ask that they increase the supply. It appears the DRC saw the shift in global sentiment towards fossil fuels as an opportunity to generate revenue.

Here’s a quote from the Mclean/Searcy article:

“And it raises a question asked by many communities whose very survival is based on cutting trees for sale or for cooking fires: If they protect carbon stocks of incalculable value to the whole world, what do they get in return?”

At least one DRC government official believes they should prioritize their needs against those of the planet. Tosi Mpanu, the DRC’s lead representative on climate issues and an adviser to the minister of hydrocarbons, said in an interview that their goal in auctioning off their rainforests for exploration was to raise money to reduce poverty. The New York Times article mentioned that the auction highlighted a double standard. Critics have asked: how can The West, which became wealthy by exploiting fossil fuels, demand that African countries refrain from doing the same? The article quoted Mpanu, the Congolese representative, saying, “Maybe it’s time we get to a level playing field and be compensated.”

The government posted an audacious video on Twitter announcing the auction. Despite the public outrage against the government’s decision, Congolese officials expanded the number of blocks up for auction from 16 to 30 (27 oil blocks and three gas). The post tagged Chevron and Total Energies. Total Energies claimed they didn’t intend to bid, but Chevron didn’t respond to a request to comment when the writers of the New York Times contacted them. Other significant oil producers also declined to comment.

With elections approaching, the article’s writers pointed out that the Congolese president needed to show he was doing something about poverty. The Congolese minister of hydrocarbon, Didier Budimbu, thought that the DRC could go from its current output of producing 25,000 barrels of oil a day to producing up to one million daily barrels. At current prices, that would pay out more than half of the DRC’s GDP.

The environmental consequences of oil exploration

Congolese officials didn’t know how much money they stood to make until they did seismic surveys. The article pointed out that the seismic survey process was already very destructive to the environment. The process would require trails to be cut into the rainforest and set off explosive charges. According to scientists: Oil exploration will poison their ecosystem with salt and heavy metals. It would also drain and dehydrate peatlands, leading to their decomposition and the release of the carbon trapped in them. According to Susan Page, a professor of physical geography at the University of Leicester in Britain, such a rapid release of carbon into the air could be the global climate tipping point. The road construction needed for the surveys will open previously uninhabited rainforest areas to loggers and poachers.

Dr. Simon Lewis is a professor of global change science at the University College London and the University of Leeds. Here are some quotes from a New Times opinion piece he wrote. He described the rainforest of the Congo River by saying: “It helps regulate our climate and slows climate change by removing 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.” He said, “In addition to accelerating the climate crisis, oil exploration here would be a pollution disaster for communities that depend on it and for wildlife.” He emphasized the importance of the peatlands by explaining,

“The peat stores colossal amounts of carbon, equivalent to three years’ worth of the world’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel use. Commercial hunters find reaching the waterlogged swamps difficult, so these peat swamp forests remain havens for wildlife. But oil prospecting requires the systematic cutting of thousands of miles of corridors to transport seismic survey equipment. If cut, these corridors will open up every part of the forest, with hunters and then illegal loggers following, dooming this natural sanctuary for wildlife.”

The Searcy and McLean article hinted that this auction might have been a ploy to attract more foreign aid. The writers gave the example of when Ecuador, in 2007, created a trust fund into which the international community could contribute to dissuade them from drilling for oil in Yasuni National Park. They asked for 3.6 billion dollars. However, they started drilling in 2013 when the trust fund only raised 13 million. But the Tosi Mpanu insisted the DRC weren’t bluffing and had a sovereign right to drill for oil.
Mpanu claimed oil companies could simply drill diagonally to avoid touching the peatlands. He assured everyone that they wouldn’t do anything without studying how it would affect the environment and the people in the area. But according to the New York Times, a Greenpeace team surveyed people who lived in the area. The people said they opposed the drilling and that they would protest it. He also argued that Congo had paid its climate dues by allowing the mining of minerals used in the renewable energy industry. He said, “We are part of the solution, but the solution also includes us making use of our oil resources.” He then admitted that the Congolese government would leave it up to the oil industry to decide if they wanted to drill in Virunga National Park. However, he also stated that the government could seek to protect other parcels of land to offset what they lost in Virunga. “If we lose 10 hectares, we could now protect 20,” he said. “Sure, it won’t have the same biodiversity and fauna, but the country has that right.” Asked what oil company would consider drilling in a protected gorilla habitat in an era where consumer awareness is higher than ever, Mr. Mpanu did not hesitate. He replied,

“It is what it is. We just have to see how much people value that resource.”

Dr. Simon Lewis made this point:

“It is unclear whether there really are substantial oil deposits beneath the Congo rainforest; if there is enough usable oil, it is also unclear whether getting it from such remote environments to global markets is economically viable. Yet, even if the initial survey revealed no commercial-scale oil deposits, the rainforests’ biodiversity value would still be destroyed. Once accessible and degraded, the rainforests would most likely succumb to rampant deforestation, increasing carbon emissions. In the peatlands, this disturbance would begin the release of carbon from the peat: up to 5.8 billion tons from the oil concession areas.”

Congo’s hydrocarbons minister said on their government’s website that they’ve consulted Angola, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea “so that the DRC can take the same path.”

We’ll continue to study the developments in this story, so stay tuned for the next exciting episode of The Gorilla Project podcast.