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In Congo, activists look to Pope to boost forest protections

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 campaigners who see the papal visit as a fresh opportunity to highlight threats to the country’s biodiversity and global climate goals.

Parts of Congo’s rainforest are up for oil and gas auction and several climate activist groups are petitioning the Pope to support their stance opposing fossil fuels investments.

The activists plan to present a petition calling for the cancellation of the oil blocks leases to the Pope, who is in Congo until Friday.

“We appeal to Pope Francis to engage our government on this very crucial matter to call for the stop to these fossil fuel projects and the prioritization of renewable energy,” said Congolese climate activist Bonaventure Bondo.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said 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 richer nations responsible for climate change.

“We have always campaigned for climate justice so 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 world’s largest peatland, is an important carbon sink as it sucks up vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other threatened areas, such as Virunga National Park, are viewed as important biodiversity hotspots.

On Tuesday Pope Francis condemned the exploitation of the continents resources, saying “Africa is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

Greenpeace Africa’s Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafack said the activists’ aims were in line with the position of the church.

“Human creation has a moral responsibility to take care of nature and not to destroy it … it is our collective responsibility to reverse nature’s decline,” she said.

The Laudato Si movement, which encourages those of Catholic faith to be involved in climate action, also voiced concern about oil and gas exploration in Congo.

It “sets us on the path of more climate catastrophes that will disproportionately affect the poor,” said the movement’s Ashley Kitisya.

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Nicole Winfield in Kinshasa, Congo and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.

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