Congo needs funding to protect forests, peatlands: Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Congolese Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula at Cite de l'OUA in Kinshasa, Congo, on Aug 9. PHOTO: AFP

KINSHASA (BLOOMBERG) - The United States will form a working group with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to discuss ways to protect the central African nation's massive tropical rainforests and peatlands as the government makes plans to explore for oil.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the announcement with his counterpart Christophe Lutundula in the capital Kinshasa after meeting with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi during the second stop of his three-nation trip to Africa.

"The DRC needs additional resources, support, financing, in order to do what is necessary to protect the rainforest and peatlands, which are already under tremendous challenge irrespective of any energy exploration or exploitation," Mr Blinken told reporters on Tuesday (Aug 9).

The two countries plan to work "very, very closely together to make sure that these resources are being protected and that what's irreplaceable is not damaged, but at the same time, that the necessary support is there for the DRC to do the work that it needs to do".

Congo launched a call for bids for 30 oil and gas blocks last month despite protests by environmental groups who fear that any exploration could damage the world's second-biggest tropical rainforest, vast peatlands and protected animal habitats.

Mr Lutundula told reporters that his government can explore for oil while protecting these ecosystems, which are important defences in the fight against climate change.

"What we have done is simply to ensure that nature, and the riches that it has for our country, benefits the Congolese people without destroying ecological systems," he said.

Mr Blinken said he and Congolese officials also discussed ways to combat corruption in Congo's mining industry, which is a major producer of copper and the world's largest source of cobalt, a key mineral in electric-vehicle batteries.

In a separate statement, the US State Department said it was providing US$23.8 million (S$32.8 million) to support Congo's elections in 2023.

"This commitment demonstrates our desire to see free and fair elections in 2023 with electoral processes that are transparent and inclusive," it said.

Mr Tshisekedi became president in 2019 after making a deal with his predecessor Joseph Kabila, following a disputed election that Congo's Catholic bishops say he lost.

The US accepted the result and has become one of Mr Tshisekedi's most important supporters.

Mr Blinken on Wednesday travels to Rwanda, which is facing accusations by Congo and United Nations experts that it is supporting a rebellion in eastern Congo. He said he would be discussing the conflict with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and that the US was focused on supporting mediation efforts by Angola and Kenya, "to prevent further violence, to end the conflict, to preserve the territorial integrity of the DRC".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.