The Fight to Save Congo's Forests
The most cogent critic I met in Congo was Arthur Kepel.Born in Kinshasa, he was recruited into Mobutu's secret police, was later the chief of intelligence for the UN mission here and is now with the International Crisis Group. His summation of the Congolese political class--a group he knows well--is painfully blunt: "They worship money. You should ask them, What are they doing for Congo? You can't blame it all on the Belgians. What are these Congolese doing for their country now?" Not that Kepel spares the Belgians. "They owe a moral debt to this country. They plundered it."
When I ask him about the international community, he again counters with a question. "What international community? Do the Americans and French coordinate against corruption here? Or does each ambassador try to get the best position for their own national interest, build relations that help the companies from their country get better deals? What do you think?"
Are there any politicians in Parliament who are genuinely trying to protect the environment and create development? Kepel pauses, scrolls through his phone, gives me a number. "But I warn you. He doesn't shake hands."
The next day I meet the man in question, Ne Muanda Nsemi, Member of Parliament and spiritual leader of a sect called Bund dia Kongo. Last May 134 of his followers were massacred by Kabila's troops as they protested against dirty dealing in local elections. Nsemi wears yellow and white vestments and receives me at his simple compound in a hillside neighborhood of Kinshasa. He explains that around a distant star circles a planet called Kongo and that the inhabitants of the old Bakongo kingdom, which once ruled parts of western Congo, were descended from extraterrestrials and Ethiopians. The whole story involves a tsunami, sunken continents, migration from Australia and many other surprising details.
I wonder if this is Kepel's idea of a joke. Then I get in a question about forest policy. Suddenly the millenarian discourse gives way to nuts-and-bolts politics. "The international community should pay for conferences that can be broadcast to educate people about the value of the forest and about the law. In Parliament we need to cooperate across party lines." He says the DRC needs sustainable forest industries, scientific management of the resources and subsidies from industrialized economies to preserve the forest for the sake of climate stability. "This planet is getting warmer--everyone needs these forests."
The main Congolese environmental organization working to save the forests is a small NGO called OCEAN, which serves as the link between international outfits like Greenpeace and local community groups in the concessions. This nascent green movement is calling for an immediate halt to illegal logging, by which they mean most logging in the DRC. But they also say that the DRC needs to develop the rule of law if a logging moratorium is to work--a long-term project, to say the least.
If the forests are to be saved, there will have to be north-to-south subsidies--call them conservation concessions or climate reparations. Paying the DRC not to log is hardly without problems, such as the boundless corruption of local officialdom--but even despite this, subsidies could help to keep chain saws and bulldozers out of the forests.
The communities desperately trying to leverage funds from logging firms will need something else in order to survive. And if massive subsidies are good enough for the tidy gingerbread farmsteads of Germany, the pretty backdrops of France and for US agribusiness, then surely the richest economies can spend to save the wilds of Congo, upon which we all depend. If Congo is deforested, the impact will be grim--and global.