Local climate activists in Congo are hoping Pope Francis’ visit will help spur action to protect the country’s rainforest from oil and gas interests.
The Pope’s call to protect Congo’s “great green lungs of the world” on Tuesday was welcomed by activists who see the papal visit as a new opportunity to highlight threats to the country’s biodiversity and global climate goals.
Parts of the Congo rainforest are being auctioned off for oil and gas, and several climate activist groups are asking the Pope to back up their stance against investing in fossil fuels.
The activists intend to present a petition to the Pope, who is in Congo until Friday, to ask for the cancellation of the leases of the oil blocks.
“We appeal to Pope Francis to engage our government on this crucial issue to demand the halt of these fossil fuel projects and the priority of renewable energy,” said Congolese climate activist Bonaventure Bondo.
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said on Tuesday evening that all projects involving natural resources in the country require “a serious and preliminary study of the environmental impact” and said it was the richest nations responsible for climate change.
“We have always fought for climate justice so that the biggest polluters, who are at the root of the destruction of the environment, pay compensation to the guardians of the planet that we are,” Tshisekedi said in an address to the Pope.
The Congo Basin, the largest peat bog in the world, is a major carbon sink as it absorbs large amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other threatened areas, such as Virunga National Park, are considered major biodiversity hotspots.
On Tuesday, Pope Francis condemned the exploitation of the continent’s resources, stating that “Africa is not a mine to be plundered or a land to be plundered.”
Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafack of Greenpeace Africa said the activists’ goals are in line with the church’s position.
“Human creation has a moral responsibility to care for nature and not destroy it…it is our collective responsibility to reverse nature’s decline,” he said.
The Laudato Si movement, which encourages people of the Catholic faith to participate in climate action, has also expressed concern over oil and gas exploration in the Congo.
“It puts us on the path to more climate catastrophes that will disproportionately affect the poor,” Ashley Kitisya said of the movement.
Nicole Winfield in Kinshasa, Congo and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
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