At the heart of central Africa’s great rainforests lies Kisangani, a small city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) some 1,300 miles from the mouth of the Congo River. The town began as a Belgian trading post, Stanleyville, and was Conrad’s model for Kurtz’s inner station in Heart of Darkness. No roads connect Kisangani to the rest of the world; over the past two decades they have all collapsed and been retaken by the jungle. Even river navigation is blocked beyond here, as a massive course of falls stretches for sixty miles upstream.
If the vast and isolated forests of the Congo Basin–the second-largest tropical woodlands on the planet–had a capital, it would be this sleepy city of crumbling colonial-era Art Deco buildings and empty boulevards. Down by the river women sell caterpillars to eat, but no one buys them. The sky is low and gray, but it never seems to rain. In the government buildings, yellow-eyed malarial old men sit in empty offices next to moldering stacks of handwritten files. There are no computers, electricity or, in many offices, even glass in the dark wooden window frames.
In a strange twist, this general dilapidation–the result of Congo’s traumatic history–has inadvertently preserved Congo’s massive tropical forests. First, Mobutu Sese Seko’s thirty-two-year kleptocracy destroyed what infrastructure the Belgians had built. Then years of civil war and invasion by Uganda and Rwanda took an estimated 4 million lives, through violence and the attendant ravages of disease. All this chaos warded off the great timber interests. As a result the Congo Basin’s massive forests–most of which lie within the DRC–are the world’s healthiest and most intact.
An estimated 40 million people depend on these woodlands, surviving on traditional livelihoods. At a global level, Congo’s forests act as the planet’s second lung, counterpart to the rapidly dwindling Amazon. They are a huge “carbon sink,” trapping carbon that could otherwise become carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. The Congo Basin holds roughly 8 percent of the world’s forest-based carbon. These jungles also affect rainfall across the North Atlantic. In other words, these distant forests are crucial to the future of climate stability, a bulwark against runaway climate change.
But the isolation of the DRC’s woodlands is ending. Since 2003 a massive United Nations mission has helped create relative stability, though several vicious and overlapping wars continue to gnaw at the country’s eastern regions. Now most of the DRC is safe for logging. Over the past four years timber firms have set upon the forest in search of high-priced hardwoods. They control about one-quarter of Congo’s forests, an area the size of California.
Blessed by the World Bank as catalysts of development, the companies operate largely unsupervised because the DRC lacks a functioning system of forest control. The government has written a new forestry code that requires companies to invest in local development and follow a supposedly sustainable, twenty-five-year cycle of rotational logging. But many companies ignore these stipulations; some have used intimidation and bribery; others log in blatantly illegal ways with no regard for the long-term damage they are causing.