The Fight to Save Congo's Forests
We ride farther in and soon the jungle opens onto huge smoldering clearings. Here another Blattner company, Busira Lomami, is clearing land for palm oil groves. It's a dramatic example of the chain of exploitation created by logging: first come the roads, and the companies take a few hardwoods; then on those roads come poachers, settlers and agricultural companies, and the deforestation starts to pick up speed.
At the Safbois compound--a cluster of trailers and mud huts surrounded by a stockade wall--I meet Kanzi, the company's chief engineer. Several months ago, when a Safbois official tried to sink a boat full of activists, a Greenpeace researcher and an Italian journalist were on board and filmed the event. The company came off looking thuggish, so now Safbois is on its best behavior. Kanzi stiffly but politely explains the situation from the company's point of view.
He says that there have been big misunderstandings. The company stopped building the one school after conflicts emerged between villages. The company is waiting for agreement from all the people in the concession before beginning to build schools and clinics in earnest. And he says that far from being exploiters, the company is harassed by environmentalists, who force it to tiptoe around the elephants, okapi and other exotic forest-dwelling animals.
According to Kanzi, tax collectors besiege the company. He offers a rather unimpressive example. "We had to pay $10 just to bring in 20,000 liters of gasoline here at our port. That is very expensive." He says, "The local people are happy to see us. But their friends and brothers, who have gone off to be educated, the intellectuals, they come back and excite the people to do bad things. They stir up trouble." When I ask how much they have logged, Kanzi snaps that it is none of my business.
After our interview I tour the logging camp with another foreman. A stoned police officer with a pet monkey on his shoulder wanders around, and in the distance one can hear chain saws. A harsh sun breaks through the clouds. The foreman explains that the workers are all from distant parts of the country. At the Safbois camp they and their families live in dirt-floored huts. The foreman tells me (and my little video camera) that the Blattners have not paid the eighty or so loggers here since April--five months ago.
To understand the local government's strange relationship of dependence on Safbois, I interview Crispin Kakwaka, the Administrateur de Territoire, at his office back in Isangi. Kakwaka describes the local government's appalling lack of resources. "We have nothing for forest control," he says. "The company gave us a few motorcycles for transportation, that is all. But we can't even inspect the amount of timber the company is sending downriver. We have to rely on whatever statistics they supply."
Coordinating opposition to Safbois is a small NGO called CAPDH. It survives on little grants, mostly from the Belgian government and UN civic education contracts it received during recent elections. Not quite a social movement or a social service organization, CAPDH is a network of about two dozen local intellectuals--part-time teachers, clerks, literate river pilots. Most, though not all, are men, and many of them studied for a few years at the provincial university in Kisangani.
"They [the police and provincial officials] forced the chiefs to sign the social agreement," says Delphin Ningo Likula, CAPDH's leader. "They surrounded the meeting and sent police after the chiefs who would not come to the meeting." Another CAPDH activist, Emmanuel Bofia, tells me, "The company hides logs in the forest, so the true amount they are cutting is not known. They cut trees in graveyards, trees in village meeting areas. They take the caterpillar trees. They are even cutting in the nature preserves deep in the jungle."
How does Safbois respond to these charges? Reached on his cellphone in Philadelphia, owner Daniel Blattner is irate. He denies that his firm is running amok in Isangi and explains away the villagers' frustration as follows: "We have a twenty-five-year concession, and we are building infrastructure as we go. We cannot--it is impossible--to build it all at once! We gave out plenty of support--over sixty bicycles, farming implements. They want 450 kilometers of road. By the time we leave, they'll have 1,000!"
About ten days after I left the Safbois concession, villagers, angry about broken promises and environmental damage, marched on the Safbois compound, pelting it with rocks. Police were called in and fired their guns into the air. Two protesters were reported injured. Days later, a survey party from a different timber firm was attacked near Isangi. The situation in the forest is tense. But to understand the forces driving these events, one must venture beyond the realm of villages, loggers, rough-edged timber camp managers and even comfortable Philadelphia-based capitalists like Daniel Blattner.