Anatomy of a ‘Nature-Based Solution’: Total oil, 40,000 hectares of disappearing African savannah, Emmanuel Macron, Norwegian and French ‘aid’ to an election-rigging dictator, trees to burn, secret contacts, and dumbstruck conservationists

On 16 March 2021, Total – the French company ranked seventh globally for production of oil – announced plans to plant a “40,000 hectare forest” in the Republic of Congo, the aim of which is to “sequester more than 10 million tons of CO2 over 20 years”. The company stated that it was committed to “the development of natural carbon sinks in Africa”. The tree-planting on the savannah-lands of the Bateke Plateau would “create a forest environment that will ultimately help broaden the ecosystems’ biodiversity”, claimed the company. But, in reality, the project is an egregious attempt to greenwash Total’s major contribution to climate change, and conceals likely serious local ecological and social damage. Behind it lies a web of shady deals, geopolitical manoeuvring and international agency dissembling.


Covering up a potentially devastating oil development

Total’s announcement follows its creation of a Nature Based Solutions (NBS) unit in June 2019 to develop ‘natural carbon sinks’ to “sequester CO2 from its operations”. It is one of several oil companies, including Shell, Eni, and Equinor, that are backing NBS to avoid reducing their emissions. But Total’s announcement was long expected. In 2019, it had acquired a highly controversial new oil exploration permit in a nearby part of the Congo. The 1.5-million-hectare concession (see map below) lies beneath what has recently been revealed to be the largest natural peat deposit in the tropics and is believed to be one of the most carbon-dense ecosystems anywhere.

Exploring and exploiting this concession would not only cause growing carbon emissions from any oil discovered there, but potentially also disturb and destroy at least some of the peat deposits, and possibly the wildlife too. In 2019, Total started looking at possibilities for some kind of greenwashing scheme to distract from this new triple-whammy for the environment. It was rumoured to be considering buying up old logging concessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo to run as offset areas.

By 2019, Total’s position in the Republic of Congo had become a bit complicated. Its predecessor Elf oil has benefited hugely from concessions off the coast of Congo for nearly fifty years. But official maps show that by 2018 it had acquired two of ten new oil exploration blocks onshore, which together cover the much of the north and east of the country (see map). These areas are entirely swathed in a patchwork of dense tropical rainforest, wetland, peatbog and natural savannahs. They are home to not only some of the last remaining truly traditional Aka Indigenous ‘Pygmies’, but also many thousands of Bantu farmers living in the forest and plains.

Sadly, this natural patchwork has already been almost entirely carved up into logging concessions and strictly protected areas from which thousands of people have been evicted. Palm oil plantations, diamond and gold mines, and new roads are adding to the pressure. The new oil concessions such as Total’s, superimposed onto what is already a highly conflictual region could potentially serve as the death-knell for this globally important habitat for people and wildlife.

Total’s ‘Koli’ concession in the far northwest was particularly alarming for conservationists, and was potentially problematic for Total, as it entirely covers the 4,000-square-kilometre Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, which is managed by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The second of the Total exploration blocks, called Mokelé-Mbembé (the name comes from the mythical monster that supposedly lives in Lake Tele, located within the concession) was awarded to Total by Congo’s hydrocarbon ministry in July 2019. This concession coincides with extensive peatlands which UK-based scientists say could be up to nearly six metres deep and contain hundreds of tons of carbon per hectare. It also covers part of the Lake Tele Community Reserve, also run by WCS, which the conservationists claim has the highest population density of lowland gorillas anywhere. The Mokelé-Mbembé concession, though, still required ‘ratification’ by the Congolese parliament.


Step in, Emmanuel Macron

At the same time as the Congolese government was preparing to hand out huge parts of its territory to Total and other oil companies in mid-2019, the French and Norwegian governments were looking at how to give it money for supposedly protecting the country’s environment. Under the Central Africa Forests Initiative (CAFI), several hundred million dollars of mostly Norwegian and some French aid money had already been pledged to other countries in the Congo Basin region, mostly for questionable projects and often in much controversy.

On 3 September 2019, it was suddenly revealed that an agreement was to be signed between CAFI and the Republic of Congo during a meeting in Paris between President Macron and Congo’s long-term dictator, Denis Sassou-Nguesso.


According to CAFI, US$65 million was to be made available for “the protection and sustainable management of peatlands in the Republic of Congo . . . these peatlands are of vital importance in the fight against climate change, as they would contain nearly three years of global greenhouse gas emissions.” The money would also fund projects to “define the modalities of planning, exploration and exploitation of mining and hydrocarbon activities when they take place in forest or peatland space, so as to reduce the impact”. Greenpeace dismissed the deal as basically ‘greenlighting’ drilling of oil in the middle of Congo’s forests and peatlands.

Curiously, no mention was made at the time by CAFI, France or Norway that Total oil was at the very same time negotiating to secure finally an oil concession that would cause precisely the problems CAFI’s money ostensibly aimed to avoid. Patrick Pouyanné, the head of Total, met with Sassou-Nguesso the day after the CAFI agreement had been signed, and President Macron and Pouyanné met the day after that. Approval of an oil production-sharing agreement with Total was formally approved by the Congolese government in December, four months after the US$65 million CAFI ‘aid’ package had been approved.


5 April 2019:
Central Africa Forests Initiative (CAFI) announces intention to provide US$65 million in funding to Congo
17 July 2019:
Government of Congo signs agreement with Total for Mokelé-Mbembé oil exploration block, subject to ratification
3 September 2019:
President Macron meets with Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and signs agreement on behalf of CAFI for US$65 million ‘green aid’ package to Congo
4 September 2019:
CEO of Total oil, Patrick Pouyanné meets Congolese President Sassou-Nguesso
5 September 2019:
President Macron meets CEO of Total oil, Patrick Pouyanné
31 December 2019:
Congo ratifies oil production sharing agreement with Total
1 October 2020:
Congo’s Official Journal announces that President Sassou had granted a 70,089-hectare concession to ‘Forest Neutral Congo’
3 November 2020:
Congolese government announces formation of ‘public-private partnership’ with ‘ForestNeutral Congo’, owned by Forêt Ressources Management group chief, Bernard Cassagne
12 March 2021:
Total and ‘ForestNeutral Congo’ sign deal with Congolese government
16 March 2021:
Total announces plantations’ offset scheme
21 March 2021:
President Sassou-Nguesso ‘wins’ another rigged election



Turning a savannah into a ‘green desert’?
So by the end of 2019, Total had acquired its preferred oil concession, and Congo had acquired US$65 million in international funding along with the prestige and credibility that went with it. Whilst Total did not have to face the impossible task of justifying drilling under the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, one of the most prestigious protected areas in Africa, it still had the problem that its newly-acquired concession was covered in pristine forest, wetlands and peatlands.

Total originally started discussions on how to greenwash its operations with the leading French institute CIRAD, the Centre for Agricultural Research for Development, but at least one prominent researcher there felt that Total should simply not drill for oil in sensitive places in Congo in the first place. Total evidently then turned to a new agency for help with implementation, CIRAD’s longtime partner Forêt Ressources Management, a consultancy with close links to the French government and a very long history of supporting the forest-wrecking logging industry in Africa.

As with nature-based solutions elsewhere, it was evidently assumed that the destruction of non-forest ecosystems such as savannahs for carbon-absorbing plantations would be much easier to dress up as environmentally beneficial. Total claimed in its announcement of the Bateke scheme that “Planting two types of acacias on sandy plateaus, exposed to recurrent bush fires, will ultimately increase the biodiversity of this ecosystem”. In fact a 2018 paper in BioTropica described the Bateke Plateau in the Republic of Congo as “one of the last frontiers for ecology, with little known about its floristics and physiognomy. Despite occupying 89,800 km2 and its importance for local livelihoods, its ecology and ecosystem functions are poorly understood.”


What does the project actually consist of, and who controls what?
Details of the project, including who is responsible for what, and even how big and where exactly the scheme is and what it will consist of, is mired in conflicting and obscure information – not helped by the fact that very little of the key documentation, such as contracts or plans, has been made publicly available.

Total’s announcement on 16 March 2021 states that Total and Forêt Ressources Management (FRM) “have signed a partnership agreement with the Republic of the Congo” for its 40,000-hectare project. However, four days earlier, it had been reported in the Congolese media, complete with a picture of a signing ceremony, that ‘Total nature based solutions (TNBS)’ and a company called ‘Forest Neutral Congo’ had signed an agreement with the ministry for a 70,000-hectare ‘land reserve’ in Lefini, on the Bateke Plateau. The signatory on behalf of ‘Forest Neutral Congo’ was Bernard Cassagne, the Founder and CEO of FRM. According to Congo’s Official Journal of 1 October 2020, a 70,089 hectare concession had been granted to the previously unknown ‘Forest Neutral Congo’ by President Sassou already in August 2020. A ‘public-private partnership’ between the Congolese government and ‘Forest Neutral Congo’ was announced in November 2020, which claimed that the company would develop 50,000 hectares. The precise and complete ownership structure of ‘Forest Neutral Congo’ is not known, and details of it are not available publicly.

As well as differing from Total’s own announcement about which entities the scheme involves, the 12 March 2021 news report included information not included in Total’s “new forest” press release three days later: the scheme would include a sawmill and log veneer peeling factory to “supply Brazzaville with 32,000 cubic metres of plywood 40,000 cubic metres of sawn timber” per year. There will also be a 2.5 MW ‘cogeneration’ electric power plant, presumably run on any wood that was not turned into planks or plywood.


The fast-growing acacia species that Total intends to plant are not native to the Congo, or even anywhere in Africa, but to Australia and Southeast Asia. Those that are not processed into wood will be burned to produce electricity, presumably to run the saw and plywood mill. (Local people might be lucky to be thrown some waste wood to cook their dinners on). In short, whilst Total and its PR agents brazenly described their venture as creating a 40,000-hectare “forest”, they will in fact be destroying part of a largely unknown natural savannah ecosystem in order to create a 40,000-hectare intensive wood farm of non-native species with associated timber processing facilities.

Even if the plantations survive the “recurrent bush fires” which are a feature of the Bateke Plateau, their eventual conversion into boards or fuelwood means that any carbon sequestration benefits are, of course, very short-term, negligible, or even negative. Native vegetation will have to be cleared to make way for the plantations, and any carbon held in the soil is likely to be disturbed by cyclical harvesting of the trees, probably by heavy machinery. Nevertheless, Total claims that the project will generate “carbon credits, certified by independent organizations, which will enable it to reduce its net CO2 emissions.”

It’s helping Africans, of course . . .

The company claims that “a local development fund will support health, nutritional and educational initiatives to benefit neighboring villages”. The fact that there are ‘neighbouring villages’ suggests that the land is currently used by those villages. A project by the Rainforest Foundation UK a few years ago on the north-eastern edge of the Bateke Plateau found, as almost everywhere else in the Congo Basin, that customary community lands there are essentially contiguous. It seems likely that the entire area for the project is claimed under customary tenure, and used for collecting, hunting and possibly rotational subsistence farming. In addition, maps show that many areas across the Bateke Plateau are inhabited by Indigenous ‘Pygmy’ people.

Apart from Total’s vague mention of “neighbouring communities”, nothing has been said about where any such communities are, how many people live there, whether they depend on the land or, most importantly, whether they have even been told anything about the project. Even if local occupants use and claim customary rights to the land, there is no right in Congolese law to actually uphold such tenure. All land is technically ‘owned’ by the state. If Total or another project partner has been granted a ‘concession’ by the Congolese state, any inhabitants could simply be evicted. There has been no report that Total plans to consult or engage with local people, or respect their land rights.


The Silence of the Conservationists

Curiously, the Wildlife Conservation Society – the leading conservation industry presence in the Republic of Congo – has said nothing publically about either Total’s oil concession that threatens its Lac Tele Community Reserve, or the company’s offset scheme in the savannah. WCS says about the Bateke Plateau that it’s a “unique landscape for central Africa. Dominated by a giant ancient sand dune system, the land is covered by large grass and wooded savanna patches separated by fine lines of dense gallery forest, and several turquoise blue river valleys…home to an interesting biodiversity found nowhere else in the Congo Basin”.

Perhaps WCS has learned from past experience that it’s best not to challenge anything the despotic Congolese government does. Instead of standing up for the now threatened wildlife in both Total’s oil concession and the offset site, a WCS website explains that “we are currently helping the Government of Congo to map the [Bateke Plateau’s] biodiversity, with the eventual goal of creating a national park”. The proposed new Bambama-Lekana park, which WCS would like to cover 5,300 square kilometres of savannah west of Lefini, could perhaps become a WCS ‘offset’ for Total’s ‘offset’. Of course this would mean that Bateke’s human inhabitants can look forward to being evicted from even more of their land, as WCS has done in other national parks it has helped to establish in the Congo.

Non-natural non-solutions

The Total project in Congo’s Bateke Plateau highlights many of the serious problems that are likely to occur in the name of so-called ‘Nature-Based Solutions’ – the notion that supposedly ‘natural systems’ can soak up atmosphere-changing carbon dioxide emitted elsewhere. It is likely to be an environmental and possibly a social disaster, and have little or no positive impact on climate change. It will cover up Total’s continued vast emissions of greenhouse gases, and its potentially highly damaging oil concession nearby in the Congo.

But the whole concept of Nature-Based Solutions was originally concocted by the conservation industry – including the Wildlife Conservation Society – as a means of being able to sell carbon credits from protected areas, and thus generating funds to create even more protected areas. The idea much appeals to major polluters like oil companies, as well as rich world governments wanting to avoid the hard political decisions needed to rapidly reduce fossil fuel consumption. In the scenario created in 2017 by The Nature Conservancy of nature-based solutions accounting for 37% of climate mitigation by 2030 – a claim much repeated by the conservation industry and some decision-makers – around twenty thousand plantation projects similar to Total’s would have to be established almost immediately, covering around 800 million hectares of land.

Total’s project in the Congo might be horrible, but it’ll certainly not be the last of the monstrous offspring spawned by the conservation and fossil fuel industries’ marriage of common self-interest.


Simon Counsell is the former director of Rainforest Foundation UK, is currently adviser to Survival International, and researches and writes on nature-based solutions and colonial conservation.

Originally published in REDD-Monitor, 16th April 2021