Conflict Ridden, Resource Rich

April 23, 2015

Access to Health students worked with health care providers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to propose hydrocarbon legislation that better governs expanding extraction industries 

Chicago physician Amy Lehman founded the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic in 2008 to deliver healthcare by boat to people living near the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. Located primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika contains approximately 18% of the world’s fresh water—a vital natural resource.

Her work in the region led her to have concerns about the increasing international interest in mining and energy exploration/production in the Lake Tanganyika basin. It’s not that Lehman opposes this type of development; if handled wisely, the extraction of natural resources can transform countries in many positive ways. Her concern was that the process wouldn’t be handled wisely.

Specifically, she worried that the DRC’s proposed hydrocarbon legislation was too vague—a dangerous thing, given the potential sums of money involved as well as the Congolese government’s reputation for corruption.

Lehman turned to Juliet Sorensen, who assembled a 2014–15 Access to Health Project team of students from Northwestern University School of Law, the Kellogg School of Management, and the Feinberg School of Medicine to examine the full scope of the economic, environmental, and health aspects of the proposed legislation, and to make recommendations for improvement consistent with transparency, accountability, and sustainability standards.

The students agreed with Lehman’s assessment.

“We were shocked at how little the draft bill covers,” said Jane Song (JD expected 2015). “There’s a troublesome lack of descriptions, and very broad, generic powers are given to the minister in charge, who has total control of who can drill and where.”

The team conferred with Lehman and opted to present a fairly broad final product of its own: a best practices-focused document that Lehman could share with local stakeholders in order to highlight the differences between the thin draft circulating in the DRC and the more robust laws used to regulate the extraction industries in other African countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, and Botswana. Proposed changes include beefed-up sections on environmental impact assessments, the bidding process for contractors, and revenue management issues.

The challenge is to provide as many health and environmental protections as possible without endangering badly needed investment and revenue—a balance Lehman stressed.

“You have to thread the needle, because imposing the very strictest or harshest regulations is not in the country’s best interest,” said Scott Shelton (JD expected 2015). The team aimed for recommendations that managed “a balancing act between suggestions that give the bill sufficient protections so that nothing terrible will happen, but aren’t so burdensome they would shut down investment, because this could be a major economic driver for the country.”

Going forward, Lehman will work with village leaders, elders, and community members in the Lake Tanganyika basin, as well as the national and provincial government, to get more robust legislation passed.

“It’s rare, as a law student, to get a chance to contribute substantively to a country’s environmental legislation,” Shelton said. “It’s not an inconsequential thing, protecting these resources.”