How the Conflict in DRC is Threatening Biodiversity

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth, and the big trees were kings.

Epulu River, DRC. By J. Doremus ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had waking dreams of exploring a great wilderness. Some place teeming with life of the most curious form, where everything from the smallest insect to the massive trees hold secrets that bespeak their remarkable existence. Here, the surrounding vegetation drips with moisture and the canopy above is so dense that even the brightest sky cannot penetrate. The forest is alive with a symphony of buzzing, humming, chirping, hooting, and calling. This is no place for the faint of heart. This is a place untamed, where roads come to die, and are overtaken by thick, impenetrable jungle. Nature is still thriving here. Unencumbered by human interference, this is a true wilderness, a sanctuary for the harsh and beautiful creatures it contains.

While it may sound other worldly, my ethereal wilderness actually exists. This place has gone by many names; the author quoted above, Joseph Conrad, called it the Heart of Darkness in his novel that chronicled his adventures through a region rife with mysterious beasts and cannibals. Today, however, it goes by another name: the Congo.

Second only to the Amazon in size, the Congo basin is an immense, swamp-strewn rainforest that is bisected by a hydrological wonder: the Congo River. Where the water meets the land, aquatic and terrestrial habitats merge to create a preponderance of unique fauna – fish that “walk” and hunt on land, and piscivorous antelope that can swim as easily as trot. This rich habitat is a seat of biodiversity, harboring tens of thousands of animal species, of which the most famous include the notoriously elusive okapi, the peaceful and promiscuous bonobo, and the African bush elephant’s smaller, more compact relative, the forest elephant. Many of these species are totally endemic, being found no place else in the world. As testimony to the vastness and complexity of this landscape, some of these species are only now being discovered; for example, the lesula monkey, seen by researchers but once in the wild and only scientifically categorized as of 2012. For primatologists like myself, the Congo basin is also irreplaceably valuable because it is the only region where four species of great ape (both species of gorilla and chimpanzee) co-occur naturally.

One country, Democratic Republic of the Congo, comprises a staggering 107 million hectares of this unique wilderness – nearly 60% of its total size. Unfortunately, this country is no stranger to violence and war, for as rich as it is in biodiversity, it is equally so in resources. Since the time of the first explorers, DRC has endured nearly ceaseless conflict over control of the country’s resource wealth. Initially, the struggle to control ivory and rubber predominated in King Leopold’s Congo; in the last two decades, however, a civil war has erupted, funded in large by DRC’s mineral abundance.  Tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold, all found in excess within DRC’s borders, are required for nearly all popular electronic devices. As a result, global industry has created an insatiable demand for these minerals, which are being extracted by armed militia in DRC at any and all cost, including the rape, torture, slaughter and enslavement of innocent peoples for leverage in the mines.

In addition to the unspeakable human rights atrocities being committed, DRC’s natural ecosystems have been ravaged under the burden of ongoing conflict. Once considered a haven for the spirits of their ancestors, Congolese villagers now flock to the forest in search of asylum from wartime aggressors. With no means of supporting themselves while away from their households, these refugees take to subsistence mining, clearing away tracts of forest to produce the small income necessary for their family’s survival. Rebels also seek shelter within the jungle, where they are concealed from army attacks and have access to life-giving water and fuel wood. Food is also available here – wildlife is hunted with increasing urgency to sustain an endless barrage of transient militia. Chimpanzees, being large-bodied, curious, and relatively slow, are a prime candidate for slaughter and consumption.

On top of increasing small scale land clearance and demand for bushmeat, prioritization of resources during wartime has led to the destabilisation of national park management in DRC – defence usually afforded to protected areas by rangers and wardens has all but ceased entirely, leaving immense parcels of habitat and their resident wildlife vulnerable to clearing by miners and harvesting by poachers. An irreplaceable wilderness is being cracked open and gutted. Freshly created roads that lead to mining sites deep within the forest permit new entry points to previously impenetrable locations. And, with this increased access comes a wake of environmental destruction from hunters, loggers, and miners.

Even with the horrendous potential loss of wildlife aside, the colossal old growth trees of the Congo basin rainforest are a carbon sink that we cannot risk losing. Congo basin flora is estimated to sequester an average of 39 billion tonnes of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, precipitously increasing the rate and severity of climate change-induced catastrophe. Clearly, then, despite the apparent hopelessness of ending a decades-long and viciously persistent conflict, find a solution we must if there is any hope of saving both this wilderness and ourselves.

Recently, governments and NGOs throughout the globe have created momentum to identify “conflict minerals” – minerals extracted from amidst situations of armed conflict, where human rights violations are likely expediting the arrival of these valuables at international markets. Dr. Jane Goodall often speaks of how a cause may only be won by first rallying awareness. The Conflict Minerals Act (bill C-486) being tabled by the Canadian Federal government is an effort to do precisely this – permit Canadian citizens the opportunity to purchase products whose minerals are sourced exclusively from conflict-free situations. This bill holds the potential to depreciate the reputability of conflict mineral purveyors, making them as guilty and nefarious as distributors of blood diamonds and sweatshop clothing. While not a magic bullet, signing JGI’s Petition to End Conflict is a sure and steady step towards stymieing global demand of resources motivating the most serious and violent war in recent history.

With efforts like these, the Congo basin ecosystem may have the chance to persevere, its fragile inhabitants the opportunity to continue their secretive and profound existence. Please take a stand and sign JGI’s petition, so that our children may also have the opportunity to dream of, and perhaps one day visit, one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses.

By antoine penda (oeuvre personnelle) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons