Congo: Tar sand exploration's impacts on communities & environment


Photo credit: Heinrich Boll Stiftung report

In 2008, Italian oil company Eni entered an agreement with the Congolese Government to invest in tar sands and palm oil in Congo.  Following this announcement, civil society organizations, including La Rencontre Pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme (RPDH) began to document and evaluate the project’s impacts on communities. The assessment focused on ten human rights principles: the right to information; the right to health; the right to a healthy environment; the right to food; the right to water and sanitation; the right to education; the right to adequate housing and shelter; the right to life; the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association. The assessment led to the publication a report in 2009. 

The research findings revealed that the project resulted in human rights abuses and damage to the environment resulting from exploration and experimental exploitation. The project was allegedly characterised by a lack of transparency and involvement of local populations, pollution of the air, rivers and soils, negative impacts on living and housing conditions as well as on cultivation. NGOs also raised concerns about the lack of health and education infrastructures, and violent suppression of complaints voiced by the local communities.

Following the assessment, NGOs and local churches attempted to facilitate a dialogue between the company, the community and the government, and to ensure media coverage of the issue in order to raise awareness at national and international levels. They also worked to increase awareness on the need to reform laws on forests and the environment.  Finally, they contacted Eni’s investors and senior management, the UN Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review process, as well as the European Commission and Parliament. These initiatives were supported and conducted particularly by women whose agricultural activities were impacted by the project as well as by young unemployed people. 

The main obstacles encountered were the need for – and difficulty of obtaining – scientific proof of water, soil and air pollution; the presence of private security companies which controlled the area and conducted forced displacements; the failure to respect commitments; the difficulty for peaceful resistance by citizens due to a weak rule of law and violence by both government and private security forces; the lack of protection of human rights organisations and defenders; the weakness of environmental laws; the lack of transparency of information because of confidentiality clauses of some strategic agreements; and the lack of technical and financial resources.   

The company responded to the allegations in 2009.


  • 2008: Agreement between Eni and the Government of the Republic of Congo for the investment of $3 billion to explore and exploit tar sand resources in a concession of 1790 square kilometres
  • 2009-2013: Publication of several reports by RPDH and partners on the impacts of the project on the human rights local communities and on the environment