The environmental group Greenpeace Africa has released a report saying planned oil and gas exploration in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could expose more than 1 million people to pollution and disease.
The planned selling of 30 eastern land blocks that extend into a famous gorilla reserve would also threaten wildlife and food security, while fueling conflict, poverty and corruption, according to the report.
Residents in the area accuse the government of keeping them in the dark and expressed fear of losing their livelihoods when companies start drilling for fossil fuels.
Representatives for Greenpeace Africa and partner organizations visited about 30 villages in July to gauge the community's awareness of the planned exploration and how they intend to protect their land and livelihoods.
Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafack, head of communication at Greenpeace Africa, said many communities are not aware of the government's plan to auction their land.
"The thought of the government thinking of auctioning their lands for oil was really a shock for them. They were unaware, so they didn't know this was underway, which is quite shocking given how much the government has said it plans to really put people ahead of everything else," Tsafack said.
No one asked residents what they thought of the oil and gas drilling project, said Bantu Lukambo, who works with Innovation for the Development and Protection of the Environment, an NGO monitoring the welfare of communities around Virunga National Park.
The government is supposed to have public input before undertaking such exploration, he said, but failed to do so. Even parliament members were not included in the decision-making process, he added.
DRC President Felix Tshisekedi defended his government's plan while speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last week, saying oil discovery would bring economic development to his people.
Hydrocarbons Minister Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga, speaking at the Africa Oil Week conference in Senegal early this month, said the DRC has received two offers for the oil blocks and said any exploration will follow environmental guidelines.
Lukambo is doubtful that will be the case.
He fears all the fish will die if the exploration begins, and fishermen and their families will be in trouble. In addition, he added, 14 of the oil blocks are in Virunga National Park, and the others are in farming areas. If exploration starts on the land, he said, farmers won't farm their land.
The oil exploration blocks overlap parts of Congo's most pristine ecosystems and Virunga Park, which is home to over 1,000 species of animals and birds.
Tsafack said Congo's leaders need to reconsider their decision to allow oil exploration in the park and nearby areas.
"This is a moment when we need to see leadership coming through, in terms of the zeal to uproot corruption, to strengthen good governance and to put the people of the DRC at [the] heart of any kind of development agenda," Tsafack said. "And putting the people of DRC at the heart of any development agenda means really looking into the communities and finding out what it is that will uplift their lives."
The 20-page report from Greenpeace urges the government to halt the projects and encourage alternative investments in renewable energy sources.