The Connection between your Smart Phone and Chimpanzees

Written By: Ria Ghai & Dani Sarusi
Category: Great Apes

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 multitude 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 sea of biodiversity, harbouring tens of thousands of animal species, of which the most famous include Great Apes.

Ariel view of DRC’s large swaths of forest reserves.

The 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.

During King Leopold’s reign over Congo slaves would have their hands severed if their work in the rubber fields was considered “unsatisfactory”

In the last two decades, however, a civil war has erupted, funded in large by DRC’s mineral abundance in 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.

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Soldiers watch over slave laborers digging colton out of the mountains of the Congo.

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.

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A bushmeat in a market in Kisangani, Congo sells a variety of meats, including various great ape body parts.

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.

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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.

It seems clear that in current society, stymieing the demand for electronics is nearly impossible, especially because technology is relentlessly improving. Every few years, our current electronic devices seem to become obsolete, and we upgrade them regularly.

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Each new devices promises to be smarter, better, faster, and sleeker. However, the global demand for the minerals used in these devices is motivating the most serious and violent war in recent history and threatening our closest living relatives – Great Apes.

Simply recycling these unused electronics, however, could significantly reduce the demand for newly excavated minerals. To promote electronics recycling, JGI Canada has begun the #CycleMyCell campaign, which is an education awareness campaign and cell phone recycling challenge – undertaken by three Toronto high schools. This is a direct action, with far-reaching significance for conservation. While not a magic bullet, the #CycleMyCell campaign is a sure and steady step towards stymieing global demand of resources being extracted from situations of agonizing conflict.

If efforts like these were to occur globally, perhaps the Congo basin ecosystem may have the chance to persevere. Its fragile inhabitants may have the opportunity to continue their secretive and profound existence. Please take a stand and recycle your old electronics, 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.

Want to get your school involved with our #CycleMyCell campaign?

Click here!
Photo credits, top to bottom: JGI Canada/Sophie Muset, UNEP, Getty Images, Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images, Schalk Van Zuydam/AP,