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Issue: 62 Section: Accounts Congo Topics: tar sands

August 30, 2009

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An Italian company's plan to develop tar sands in the Congo has activists worried

by Ben Powless

Gas flares burn in fields near houses in the Republic of Congo. Photo: Brice Mackosso

IGLESIAS, ITALY—You’ve likely heard about the tar sands in northern Alberta. You’re probably familiar with the devastation—environmental and social—this megaproject has brought to the land. Maybe you even have a relative who lives or works there.

There's less chance you've heard of the tar sands in the Republic of Congo (sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville). Even people living in the African nation, home to the second largest stand of tropical forest in the world, have been left in the dark.

“There is almost no information available about the project. We don’t even know the exact location, and communities are angry that they haven’t been consulted,” Brice Mackosso of the Justice and Peace Commission, told The Dominion.

Congolese activists gathered at a recent civil-society meeting in Italy around the G8 do know that Eni, an Italian oil company, has signed agreements with the scandal-ridden government of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso for tar sands development, as well as for a palm oil plantation with the intention to make biofuels.

Eni has begun exploration and intends to start drilling by 2011.

According to these activists, the license that Eni obtained covers an area of 1,790 km2 a fraction of the 140,000 km2 total size of the Alberta tar sands.

Preliminary tests show that oil deposits in this area could store up to seven billion barrels of oil.

Eni has signed its lease agreements not with the Oil Ministry, but with the Mining Ministry, revealing that they may intend to strip-mine the area.

Experience in Alberta shows that this kind of extractive activity requires deforesting vast stretches of land and pollutes the air and sky with toxic runoff generated in the upgrading from bitumen-laden sands into something that can be used as fuel.

The Congolese activists who spoke about these issues in Italy were alarmed to learn that Indigenous communities are being poisoned by the tar sands in Canada. “It is hard to imagine this kind of thing happening in Canada, and what would happen in the Congo,” said Mackosso.

In the Congo, the exploitation of the tar sands threatens one of the remaining great tropical ecosystems on earth, not to mention the global threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions released in the production of heavy synthetic crude.

But the immediate risk of opening up tar sands in the Republic of Congo is one that Indigenous and local communities face. Will they be poisoned and displaced to make way for the oil companies?

Even asking about the project has meant trouble for some. “People have been thrown in jail for opposing oil and gas, even for just questioning it,” said Christian Mounzeo from Rencontre pour la paix et les droits de l’homme (RPDH).

Both activists talked about how in Congo resentment still hangs in the air due to past deeds of oil companies. These companies include Congo's national Société Nationale des Pétroles du Congo and French giant Total, accused of failing to compensate local people for lands and habitats that were obliterated during previous oil exploration and extraction, as well as contaminating food and water sources.

Eni has completed an environmental impact assessment, but according to Congolese activists, a review of the company's study showed that some of the predicted impacts were underestimated.

At the local level, there are demands for an independent impact assessment and meaningful consultations with Indigenous and other local communities. Congolese groups have also called for an end to development of the tar sands and the palm-for-oil scheme until all the risks are disclosed.

“People [in Congo] are afraid to speak out. We need to get the information about the devastating impacts to communities,” said Mounzeo.

Ben Powless is a Mohawk activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network and an independent journalist and photographer. He visited Italy during the 2009 G8.

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Civilized world?

You would think in this civilized world that this would not be happening any more but yet here we are stealing and oppressing without telling anyone what is happening until it is too late. casino

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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