globalwitness-What lies beneath


How an oil project linked to the Republic of Congo’s corrupt rulers was obtained by one of Africa’s richest men in questionable circumstances — imperilling climate-critical peatland forests


This report is based on a joint investigation by Global Witness, Der Spiegel and Mediapart, in conjunction with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) media network.


  • Claude Wilfrid Etoka, who manoeuvred out a rival to take control of the Ngoki oilfield, had company bank accounts closed down in France over corruption red flags, our investigation reveals.


  • An environmental impact assessment almost entirely pre-dated the peatlands’ discovery with no analysis of the risk to peatlands from drilling – rendering it unfit for purpose.


  • There is evidence oil reserves have been wildly exaggerated and may not be economically viable at all.




The oil-rig looks incongruous on the banks of the River Likouala-aux-Herbes, which meanders towards the River Congo through savannah floodplains and swamp forests. This is a place roamed by endangered forest elephants and lowland gorillas, described by one travel guide as “literally one of the most wild and remote regions of the planet by any scale or stretch of the imagination”. Beneath the dark waters of this idyll, frequented by fishermen in dug-out canoes, the Republic of Congo’s rulers claim there lies a vast oil reserve that will lure international investment and transform the country’s debt-riddled finances. But a wide-ranging investigation by Global Witness, in collaboration with Der Spiegel and Mediapart journalists, into the oil block named Ngoki - ‘crocodile’ in the local Lingala language – sheds new light on this oil project. Global Witness can reveal serious corruption risks, environmental assessments that are completely unfit for purpose, and expose claims of vast oil reserves as seemingly hollow. Oil production in this region would not only be environmentally harmful, but an investment every bit as perilous as these crocodile-infested waters.



The Cuvette Centrale is a vast swathe of forest and wetlands at the heart of the Congo Basin. It is critical in terms of biodiversity and the global climate, forming part of the world’s second largest tropical rainforest. In 2014 British scientists made the startling discovery that the region also holds the world’s largest tropical peatlands. The Congo Basin peatlands are crucial to the global effort to combat climate change. They have been estimated to store 30 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to three years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions. If this region were fully exploited by oil companies, much of this peatland would have to be drained to build roads and infrastructure, releasing stored carbon in the process. That makes the Cuvette one of the biggest carbon time bombs on the planet.



The region is also one of the world’s last frontiers for oil exploration. The governments of both the Republic of Congo and neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo have signed various exploration deals with oil majors in the Cuvette. But so far its oil reserves have remained largely unknown and unexplored, largely due to its extreme remoteness and Congo’s difficult business climate. Congo’s government has long been keen to develop an oil industry in this region. 2019 thus saw an ongoing bidding round for new oil investors there.


A startling oil ‘discovery'

In August 2019, dignitaries gathered in President Sassou-Nguesso’s sleepy hometown of Oyo to hear the announcement of a gigantic oil discovery. The Ngoki find would purportedly quadruple the country’s oil production, putting the Cuvette region firmly on the oil map.



President Sassou-Nguesso trumpeted the discovery in a televised address to the nation a few days later, claiming: “Our country has never ducked the obligation to protect the peatlands and has no intention of doing so.” This was despite Congo “still waiting” for financial compensation from richer nations for protecting these ecosystems, he said. The president was at pains to point out that Ngoki was located not on the peatlands but their “periphery”, insisting “innovations” meant oil could be produced in a way that would “limit the impact on the environment”.



Three weeks later, the president flew to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and sign a US $65m agreement to protect Congo’s forests and peatlands, as part of the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). CAFI is supported by donors including Norway, France and Germany. The visit made headlines for Sassou’s arrival at this climate meeting by private jet rented at an estimated €456,000. Yet the agreement did not rule out oil or mining activities in Congo’s peatlands, merely committing to grant the peatlands a “special legal status” by 2025. The threat of oil exploration in the Cuvette was apparently of little concern to Congo’s donors.



Find out more...

Go back


WWF: Rainforest deforestation more than doubled under cover of coronavirus -DW

Tropical rainforests shrank by 6,500 square kilometers in March — an area seven times the size of Berlin. Criminal groups are taking advantage of the pandemic and the unemployed are getting desperate, the WWF said.

Read more …

Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park Monthly update April 2020

"At a time when many countries are beginning their gradual deconfinement and when there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon of returning to normal life, I wanted to share with you some good news that also fills us with hope for the future of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park."

Read more …

Resources and follow-up from the virtual FAO-EcoAgriculture Partners Roundtable

Last April 30th FAO and EcoAgriculture Partners organized a virtual Roundtable on Territorial Perspectives for Development, in which over 170 people participated.

Read more …

ATIBT -CBFP: Private Sector mobilized around the CBFP Facilitator of the Federal Republic of Germany

ATIBT co-facilitated the mobilization of the private sector of the timber sector to participate in the first meeting of the private sector college of Congo Basin Forest Partnership with the new facilitator Dr Christian Ruck and his team German Facilitation.

Read more …

Development and institutionalization of a PAFC certification system for the Congo basin: opening of the second public consultation on Sustainable Forest Management Certification Standard, 23 May 2020 - 22 June 2020

This second public consultation will be open for a period of 30 days from tomorrow Saturday the 23rd of May 2020 and will be closed on Monday the 22nd of June 2020. The public consultation is open to all stakeholders of forest management in the Congo Basin interested in participating to the PAFC Congo Basin certification standards development process.

Read more …

Forest defenders on the COVID-19 frontline stand ready to assist the global EU response – Fern

These efforts go hand in hand with ensuring continued responsible management of natural resources and preventing unsustainably and illegally sourced forest commodities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, forest-monitoring organisations Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestière (OGF) and Réseau des observateurs indépendants des ressources naturelles (RENOI) are set to carry out COVID awareness-raising in at-risk forest areas, and will also assess COVID’s impact on forest management and governance commitments under the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). Across the Congo Basin, fears that a proper lack of oversight may put forests and forest peoples in danger are looming despite emerging initiatives.

Read more …

22 May 2020 International Day for Biological Diversity

The theme of the 2020 International Day for Biological Diversity is “Our Solutions are in Nature”. It shows that "Biodiversity remains the answer to a number of sustainable development challenges that we all face. From nature-based solutions to climate, to food and water security, and sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity remains the basis for a sustainable future."

Read more …

CBFP News Archive


There are no news items for this period.