Congo's former president awarded oil block in UNESCO heritage site

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Former Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila in December awarded an oil drilling license that overlaps a wildlife-rich UNESCO world heritage site, according to official records, reviving concerns about environmental protections.

FILE PHOTO: Felix Tshisekedi receives the presidential sash from the outgoing President Joseph Kabila during the inauguration ceremony whereby Tshisekedi was sworn into office as the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/Files

Congo, Africa’s leading copper producer, has long aimed to boost oil output above 25,000 barrels per day but corruption and conflict have hampered development on its Atlantic coast, in the its central rainforests and near its eastern border with Uganda.

When in office, Kabila drew criticism for offering drilling deals that encroached on protected areas. His successor Felix Tshisekedi, who was declared president after a contested December election, has yet to outline his policy on the issue.

Environmentalists worry that developing oil reserves could threaten the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, which contains rare forest elephants, peacocks and bonobos, which are also known as dwarf chimpanzees. Drilling risks releasing massive amounts of global warming-causing gases.

One of three licenses awarded to South Africa’s DIG Oil on Dec. 13, in the final weeks of Kabila’s rule, encroaches on the 33,350 square km (12,900 square-mile) Salonga national park, according to records seen by Reuters this week.

The deal was signed by Kabila and his Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala, who remains in office as Tshisekedi is yet to appoint a new government.

Oil firms are not allowed to drill in protected areas. But Kabila’s government said last year it would open up parts of Salonga and Virunga national park, another a world heritage site that is home to gorillas, to oil drilling.

Kabila awarded drilling rights to a privately-owned oil producer called COMICO in 2018 that also encroached on Salonga.

In 2010, UNESCO appealed to Kabila to guarantee there would be no drilling in Virunga after deals that overlapped the area. British company Soco International performed seismic testing in Virunga in 2014 but let its license lapse the following year.

Emmanuel Kayumba Banza-Mwana, a senior official in the oil ministry under Kabila, told Reuters a commission had been set up to assess whether drilling would be allowed there.

Spokespeople for Tshishekedi were not available for comment.

Together Salonga and Virunga cover an area about the size of Switzerland. Rights groups say drilling there could also cost the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and fishermen.

“Oil exploration in Salonga National Park could have a devastating impact on the park’s integrity, its biodiversity and the local communities living off its resources,” said Peter Jones of London-based campaign group Global Witness.

DIG Oil’s Executive Director Andrea Brown told Reuters the company would rather avoid drilling in the park, but did not rule it out. “Our preference is to not drill in a World Heritage Site,” she said in an email.

Editing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Edmund Blair