People on a Road in DRC Rainforest © Thomas Einberger / argum / Greenpeace
People living on the auctioned oil and gas blocks were not consulted by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) government

Forests are losing out to fossil fuels and foreign finance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On July 28, the country’s government auctioned 27 oil blocks and three gas blocks overlapping with some of the world’s most sensitive ecosystems, after signalling its intent in April.

The blocks cutting through carbon-rich peatlands, the Virunga National Park and other wildlife sanctuaries were sold to the highest bidder in what the country’s government has framed as an act of nationalism to advance its economy. “We care more for human beings than for gorillas,” the minister of communications has argued. “We have a duty for our people, while NGOs don’t,” the minister of environment has said, in defence of this environmental catastrophe in the making.

The nationalistic narrative is not only grossly misleading, but masks the true acts of nationalism that are required in Africa. First and foremost, the government has not even bothered to inform and consult the numerous Congolese people whose lives will be affected by oil and gas exploration and production. Greenpeace Africa knows that because when its teams went to speak to people living on the auctioned blocks, they found communities shocked and outraged at the prospect that their ancestral lands will be auctioned and their lifestyle disrupted.

Feeding Europe’s energy scramble

The faux-nationalisme of DRC’s government is the kind that stifles efforts by ordinary Africans to end a century-long colonial and neo-colonial approach to growth which profits richer nations, big multinationals and a closed-circle of elites while deepening hardships for most people on the continent.

In its simplest form, neo-colonialism is the perpetual influence of former colonial masters over African countries, through interventions in politics, economic policy and security.

More and more African leaders are speaking up against neo-colonial practices to defend their national interest and sovereignty and to ensure national policy advances the dignity and welfare of their people above all else. While this is what the DRC government claims to be doing by auctioning the Congo rainforest, it is actually further entrenching neo-colonial sway over the nation.

The decision to auction oil and gas blocks in some of the world’s most sensitive ecosystems comes amid a scramble by European nations and their giant oil and gas companies to find alternative energy sources to reduce their reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

It comes at a time when many rich economies seem to have forgotten their climate pledges and are now rushing to service their carbon intensive lifestyles by expanding fuel imports. And like every neo-colonial act before this, their race for resources keeps the needs of Africa’s people repressed.

This massive auction is bound to render certain communities who live and depend on the rainforest homeless, degrading their lands and disrupting their way of life, polluting their air and waters for generations to come. If history is a guide, a few senior officials will line their pockets and big international business will be the biggest winner. Moreover, instead of creating more jobs, the oil and gas industry could drive up already rising youth unemployment rates by attracting the country’s brightest people away from the creation of small- and medium-sized businesses—the backbone of employment generation in much of the world.

Virunga National Park in DRC © Greenpeace / Jan-Joseph Stok
View of the Virunga National Park from the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) headquarter in Rumangabo. © Greenpeace / Jan-Joseph Stok

Plunder as patriotism

There’s an endless supply of examples all over Africa of how such deals have enriched a few elites and left millions of ordinary people in greater hardship. True acts of nationalism come from a deep and honest reflection on the best interest of the people and not the best interest of a few elites.

Few countries in the world can match the DRC’s mass, minerals and biodiversity wealth, yet more than 60 years after independence it still ranks among the poorest nations in the world. If selling off its rainforest and its other natural treasures were ever an act of nationalism, the country would have been a G7 nation by now. Instead, the rush to sell raw materials has only made it poorer and more corrupt, with horrific images of child labour and other hardship in its mines making global headlines.

Nationalism in Africa will require much more than selling off resources to service carbon-extravagant lifestyles in richer countries. It will require the courage of African leaders to truly reimagine other ways of lifting up their people from their economic struggles.

Building local industry for manufacturing to create jobs, providing decentralised energy access through tapping into the abundance of solar energy, conserving nature and investing in eco-tourism are some of the paths to development that Africa needs. They would help in incentivising good governance, distributing wealth and rooting out the corruption and greed that continues to characterise many leaderships in Africa.

Truly taking an African approach to growth and development also requires having the audacity to reimagine the socio-economic system in itself. Has the current approach worked for Africa? Is an alternative economic model rooted in African traditional ways of organising and living too far-fetched to achieve?

Pitching plunder as patriotism — as the DRC government is doing — is no substitute for asking these important questions.

An original version of this article was published by Al Jazeera on 18 August 2022.