Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, was aimed partly at advocating protection of a vast rainforest and carbon-rich peatland as the country moves to auction nearly 30 oil and gas blocks. The brief stop coincided with Blinken’s tour of three African nations, an itinerary intended to promote partnerships with the United States as Russia and China make inroads on the continent.
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Environmentalists are particularly worried about the potential destruction of the flooded forest, an area larger than England, where the mud measures up to 30-feet deep. They have warned that disturbing the ecosystem could set off a “carbon bomb,” representing up to three years worth of global carbon dioxide output.
While the Biden administration remains concerned about the ability of Congolese officials to oversee the auction and ensure it does not lead to significant environmental damage, U.S. officials say they are not pressing the government of President Félix Tshisekedi to forego the initiative entirely.
One of the world’s five poorest countries, the DRC is in dire need of jobs and income as its economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We appreciate the short-term economic challenges confronting the Congo,” Blinken said in a news conference Tuesday alongside his Congolese counterpart. “By conserving irreplaceable forests and other ecosystems and by undertaking development projects only after carrying out rigorous environmental impact assessments, the DRC can act on behalf of all the world’s people to protect our shared home.”
Together with the DRC’s neighbor, the Republic of Congo, the area represents the world’s largest tropical peatland. The surrounding tropical rainforest is the world’s second largest, after the Amazon.
Many industrialized nations drained their peatlands to make way for agriculture long ago and now are asking other countries to forego doing the same.
As alarm grows about the potential impact of steps to disturb or drain the peatlands, state and private donors pledged at last year’s COP26 summit to provide at least $1.5 billion toward protecting the Congo basin forest and peatlands. Advocates say much more is needed, however.
DRC Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula said his government would work to protect biodiversity and the climate but must also address the needs of its people, most of whom live on less than $2 a day.
“Today, the DRC finds paradox that … the DRC is rich, is a wealthy country, but with a very poor population,” he said, speaking to reporters after the visiting diplomat’s meetings at Tshisekedi’s sprawling presidential compound along the Congo River.
“The challenge is to find an equilibrium, a balance between the well-being of Congolese people and also the necessity to guarantee … a development framework [and] an ecological framework,” Lutundula said.
The DRC’s long history of corruption has stymied other conservation efforts in the past and raised additional concerns about the plan to auction off energy blocks. Last year, the Tshisekedi government lifted a long-standing moratorium on new logging licenses, a move decried by environmentalists.
Blinken said the United States understood that the Congolese people were wary of involvement by foreign nations or companies.
“Too often, African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress rather than as authors of their own progress. Resources have been exploited for other countries’ gains,” he said. “That is not what the United States will do. We don’t want a one-sided transactional relationship. Instead, we want to work with you on shared priorities in pursuit of shared goals.”
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Blinken spoke a day after he unveiled the Biden administration’s new strategy for Africa, a blueprint governed by a desire to develop partnerships with African nations that modernize the historic donor-recipient dynamic and jointly develop means to address challenges like climate change. The strategy comes as China deepens its economic influence on the continent, and Russia sends arms and mercenaries.
He said the two countries would form a working group on the DRC’s planned rainforest exploitation that would seek to achieve a “responsible” development of fossil fuel, potentially providing a means for the United States to help the DRC conduct ecological analysis of various options. The working group would not have decision-making power over which firms are selected to extract oil and gas, officials said.
Blinken said Tshisekedi had committed to conducting thorough environmental impact assessments.
Another chief objective of Blinken’s visit was to press for a credible presidential election in 2023. The last presidential elections, in 2018, resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power in the DRC’s history.
Blinken on Wednesday met with the head of the country’s electoral commission. After the meeting, he referenced the arrest of an opposition leader, Jean-Marc Kabund, allegedly for calling Tshisekedi a “danger.”
Speaking to reporters, Blinken called the arrest “a possible setback” in the lead-up to the election and said he had raised the incident with Congolese officials. “We are concerned about any steps taken that could actually reduce the political space,” he said.
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