Smoke emission from the Metssa Congo factory in Vindoulou, Congo

Republic of Congo: Authorities failing to ensure respect of human rights by big industry

The Congolese authorities and three industrial companies have failed to respect international and national norms regarding the right to a healthy environment and other human rights, said Amnesty International in a new report analyzing the potential impact of oil spills and smoke emissions on the health and socio-economic situation of local communities.

The report, “In the Shadow of Industries in the Republic of Congo”, sheds light on several cases of oil spills on soil and water sources, and smoke emissions from aluminium and lead furnaces linked to the activities of two oil companies and one recycling company in the Pointe-Noire and Kouilou areas. It also shows the lack of access to health and to drinking water for people living around oil concessions in the coastal area.  

“While Congolese legislation on environmental issues is considered to be fairly advanced, our documented cases, in particular the establishment of a non-ferrous metals and plastics recycling plant and the management of oil spills, show that authorities are failing to meet their obligations to protect the human rights of people living near industrial activity”, said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa.   

The report highlights a significant lack of transparency in environmental impact assessments and audits, which are not made public. This opacity prevents NGOs and civil society from effectively carrying out their monitoring role. The authorities and companies are also limiting the information made public following environmental incidents and in their responses.

Residents claiming health problems following oil spills

In the village of Djeno in Pointe-Noire area, TotalEnergies EP Congo, a subsidiary of the French company TotalEnergies, has had at least three incidents since 1972 – the last one in 2011, that resulted in crude oil spills into the Loubi lagoon. The company detailed the measures taken to clean up the lagoon and to share information with residents, but many continue to denounce the pollution and lack of information.

International partners should ensure that the companies from their own country, and their subsidiaries, comply with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Samira Daoud, Amnesty International's Regional Director for West and Central Africa

A local fish seller said to Amnesty International: “Not only did the number of fish decrease, but customers also began to complain of diarrhoea, as well as the taste of the fish.” Indeed, residents reported suffering from health problems, particularly diarrhoea, after eating fish from the lagoon.

The company maintains that water analyses carried out in 2021 did not reveal any anomaly and that they carry out regular tests to monitor groundwater quality. However, these test results have not been made public. Despite pleas by residents, the authorities never investigated the potential harm of past spills of oil on the environmental, economic and social rights of residents, including the right to health.

A fisherman showing a small fish and an oil lump collected from a polluted river
A fisherman showing a small fish and an oil lump collected from a polluted river

In Banga Kayo, 30km from Pointe-Noire, residents accuse the Chinese oil and gas company Wing Wah of polluting the Loémé river and point to the lack of transparency regarding repair and follow-up measures following incidents – the last incident being the leak of the pipeline linking Banga Kayo to the Djeno oil terminal in December 2022. Wing Wah’s activities were suspended several times by the Ministry of Environment and then resumed without any public communication on potential reparation and mitigation measures taken by the company.

Blood tests showing possible lead contamination

In Vindoulou, on the outskirts of Pointe Noire, a collective of residents has been complaining for years about the smoke coming out of the Metssa Congo factory, a recycling plant located 50 meters from a school. This subsidiary of the Indian group Metssa notably produces lead bars for exportation. In March 2023, blood samples were taken from 18 people living near the factory, and analyzed in an independent laboratory with the support of Amnesty International. All had lead levels well above the level deemed safe by WHO.

The Metssa Congo factory’s impact on human rights should be investigated without delay.

Samira Daoud, Amnesty International's Regional Director for West and Central Africa

“Children regularly vomit and cough a lot, especially when there is a lot of smoke”, a local woman told Amnesty International. Several other residents reported experiencing similar symptoms. Metssa Congo claims that it took the necessary steps to treat the fumes emitted.

Prior to the factory’s installation in 2013, Metssa Congo failed to carry out an environmental impact assessment, in violation of Congolese law. Despite this, the authorities allowed Metssa to start operating. The company claims to have been granted a site license in 2018 and to have obtained a certificate of environmental compliance last year – 10 years after opening.

“The Metssa Congo factory’s impact on human rights should be investigated without delay. This must be followed by immediate action to remedy any harms identified; this may include the relocation of the factory,” said Samira Daoud.

The report also shows how authorities failed to protect the right to health and the right to water of residents of Bondi, Tchicanou and Kouakouala, three villages located near a site of oil extraction. Even though these villages benefited from the state’s “Water for All” programme, their water facilities were no longer functional at the time of Amnesty International’s visit, and the health centre, supposed to cover the needs of around 7,000 residents, had very insufficient resources.

Action needed from all stakeholders – including international partners

“As the republic of Congo plans to diversify its industrial activities, Amnesty International calls on the Congolese state to ensure businesses act responsibly and comply with their environmental and human rights obligations. International partners should ensure that the companies from their own country, and their subsidiaries, comply with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” said Samira Daoud.

“Amnesty International also calls on the Congolese authorities to use all available resources to protect the right to health and the right to water in conformity with their international human rights obligations.”

Amnesty International shared the preliminary findings of this report with the companies and relevant authorities for a ‘right to reply’ in January, February and March 2024. At the time of writing, no responses had been received from the authorities and Wing Wah. The responses of the other companies are provided in the report.