By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript
It is hard to think of any country on earth more ruthlessly exploited than the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its natural resources -- tin ore from mines in the interior, timber from its vast forests, gold ore, diamonds, even uranium – are all pillaged.
The theft of the territory’s wealth goes back to the days of the 19th century Congo Free State, the lucrative, privately owned colony of Belgium’s King Leopold II.
Traders and explorers from the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States moved rapidly into the region. They created a deadly trade in ivory and rubber for Western markets and in enslaved labour for the Indian Ocean rim.
The brutal practices that King Leopold II later used to extract a huge fortune in rubber from his personally owned colony became a worldwide scandal in the twentieth century’s first decade, as recounted in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 exposé, Heart of Darkness.
Few profits from all these riches ever trickled down to ordinary Congolese, either in centuries past or today. Most households today survive on less than the equivalent of $3 a day.
Recovery from the exploitation built into colonialism often happens faster if a territory previously had a common language and some shared sense of nationhood, but that eludes this vast country.
The region was inhabited by hundreds of different peoples, speaking well over 200 indigenous languages, and absolutely no sense of shared identity. Travel was very difficult due to the thickness of the rain forest, the world’s second largest, and hindered the development of large political entities.
“In many cases,” writes Yale University historian Robert Harms in his 2019 book Land of Tears, “the largest political unit was a single village, or even a segment of a village.”
The Belgian government took control of the vast region away from Leopold but did little to improve conditions. After independence in 1960, the country devolved into anarchy; eventually the major beneficiary became the dictator of the country, Mobutu Sese Seko. During his reign of thirty-two years, Mobutu pocketed even more money from the territory than Leopold had done.
The collapse of the Mobutu regime in 1997 created a power vacuum that drew more than a half-dozen African nations, along with various militias, into an extended and chaotic war in the Congo.
This bloody conflict, which became known as Africa’s World War, lasting from 1998 to 2003, led to the deaths of some four million people. Then came the long-time ruler Joseph Kabila, who used his time in office, from 2001 to 2019, to amass vast business holdings for himself and his family.
Though Felix Tshisekedi is currently president, following a disputed election, Kabila still wields considerable power behind the scenes.
Nor has violence ceased. Armed groups continue to massacre civilians in the troubled east of the country. The Italian ambassador, Luca Attanasio, was killed Feb. 22 during a visit to the eastern part of the country in a World Food Program convoy.
The U.S. State Department on March 11 declared the Allied Democratic Forces and Madina at Tauheed Wau Mujahedeen as terrorist groups affiliated to the jihadist group Islamic State Central Africa Province.
The despoilation of the country’s resources continues. The Congo Basin contains some 314 million hectares of primary rainforest. “Being a major storehouse of biodiversity, it provides huge services to all of humanity,” explains Simon Lewis, a geographer at University College London.
Industrial activity, such as palm oil plantations, logging and mining, is contributing to deforestation. Primary rainforest loss more than doubled between 2002 to 2019, according to Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute. In 2019 alone, 590,000 hectares were lost.
One way to halt this is through community forestry concessions in individual villages. The government believes this will provide unprecedented new levels of protection.
For example, the 500 indigenous people of Lokolama, in the Equateur province of northwestern Congo, were granted 10,000 hectares in February 2019 with the support of Greenpeace Africa and are now harvesting honey and tomatoes. In Yanonge, more than 640 kilometres to the east, four remote forest communities established another community concession, cultivating peanuts and plantain.
The country has also instituted a moratorium on new logging concessions. It’s definitely a start.