On the 16th of March of 2021, TotalEnergies announced a partnership with the french Forêt Ressources Management and the Republic of the Congo government to plant 40 million acacia trees over 40,000 hectares in the Bateke Plateau . In exchange, TotalEnergies will pay $1,55 per hectare of plantation per year to the Congolese government .
But the deal is not merely a comercial transaction and it is murked by shady global politics. The plantation manager, Forêt Ressources Management has been labelled as "a consultancy with close links to the French government and a very long history of supporting the forest-wrecking logging industry in Africa" . Additionally, the agreement comes just over a year after the Congolese government ratified the Mokelé-Mbembé oil concession for TotalEnergies overlaping with the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, which store 20 years’ worth of U.S. fossil fuel emissions . The concession is hard to disassociate with a series of meetings between french president Emmanuel Macron, TotalEnergies' CEO Patrick Pouyanne, and the Congo dictator Denis Sassou-Nguesso, also known as the ‘The Butcher of Brazzaville’, earlier in 2019. After the Macron-Sassou meeting, a $65 million ‘green aid’ package to the Republic of the Congo from the controversial Central Africa Forests Initiative (CAFI) 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” was announced . Finally, the final Bateke plantation agreement between TotalEnergies and the Congolese government was signed just 9 days before a rigged election granted a new term to the Congolese dictator in a country where political opposition and freedom of press are repressed .
The Bateke plantation is the first major project of the newly created Nature Based Soultions branch of TotalEnergies, and it is the materialisation of the french multinational professed carbon neutrality objectives by 2050. TotalEnergies plans to continue drilling for more oil and gas while pretending to capture the emitted carbon with industrial plantations. According to the company the project will absorb "500,000 tons of CO2 per year over twenty years" which will be sold as carbon credits certified following the controversial Verified Carbon Standard from Verra .
But the carbon accounting is misleading, activist denounce. It is unclear if the carbon accounting includes emissions related to the cutting of acacia for charcoal and planned timber production from 2040. It also does not take into account that wild fires are common in the area during the dry season and the plantation could burn eliminating any promised climate benefits .
“Total is expanding its liquefied gas extraction projects all around the world, but at the same time it claims that it has a 2050 net-zero goal. It’s highly contradictory,” said Myrto Tilianaki from CCFD-Terre Solidaire . Besides, activists denounce that the plans are far from ecologically-sound. Acacias are a fast-growing invasive species. The industrial plantation can have unintended impacts on an habitat whose biodiversity has been barely studied .
"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." says Simon Counsell from REDD monitor in his blog .
Last but not least, indigenous Pygmy and highly nomadic Batouas communities live in the area . TotalEnergies says the project "will create employment opportunities, with a positive impact on several thousand people" , but it seems unlikely that the industrial plantation is not going to detrimentally affect the traditional lifestyle given the natural savannah ecosystem provides sustenance and is part of the local traditional culture . Traditional ownership of the land is not enshrined in Congolese law, uner which all land belongs to the state. Therefore the concession given by the government to TotalEnergies will give freedom to evict the traditional dwellers of the land while there has been no evidence of efective free prior and informed consent .