The Congo rain forest, an overview of a threatened ecosystem
June 6, 2005
Known as the heart of darkness by Joseph Conrad, the Congo region has long conjured up thoughts of pygmies, mythical beasts, dreadful plagues, and cannibals. It is a land made famous by the adventures of Stanley and Livingstone and known as a place of brutality and violence for its past — the days of the Arab slave and ivory trade, its long history of tribal warfare — and its present — the ethnic violence and massacres of today.
The river itself is as turbulent as its history, though it begins peacefully enough in the savannas just south of Lake Tanganyika.
The Congo basin and river
Gradually the river widens and picks up speed until it enters the “Gates of Hell,” a 75-miles long canyon of impassable rapids. The river emerges again, surrounded by lush tropical rainforest as the Lualaba or Upper Congo. During the course its journey through the foreboding rainforest, the river crosses the equator twice. Because the watershed of the Congo drains from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere it does not have the great seasonal fluctuations in water level as other great rivers. Its flow is relatively stable because part of its watershed is always in the zone of rain. The Upper Congo abruptly ends with Stanley Falls, a 60 mile stretch of rapids.
Stanley Falls gives way to the Middle Congo, a 1000 mile stretch of navigable river, nine miles wide in some parts. Along this quiet stretch of river is the city of Kinsangani, a city known for violence since Belgian colonial days. Near the end of the Middle Congo, the river slows to a virtual stand-still for 20 miles, a section known as Stanley or Malebo Pool. Here the river is 15 miles wide and flanked by the capital cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. The peace of the pool is suddenly shattered by Livingstone Falls, a series of rapids and cataracts 220 miles long. There are some 32 cataracts, having as much power as all the river and falls in the United States combined. The final 100 miles to the Atlantic ocean from the end of the falls is fully navigable.
The Congo is the Earth’s second largest river by volume and has the world’s second largest rainforest (18% of the planet’s remaining tropical rainforest). The Congo Basin represents 70% of the African continent’s plant cover and makes up a large portion of Africa’s biodiversity with over 600 tree species and 10 000 animal species. Six nations — Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon — share the 1.5 million square mile Congo basin.
The Congo is one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems. Commercial logging, clearing for subsistence agriculture, and widespread civil strife has devestated forests, displaced forest dwellers, and resulted in the expansion of the “bushmeat” trade. Since the 1980s, Africa has had the highest deforestation rates of any region on the globe.
Logging in the Congo Basin has increased significantly in the past couple of years as govenments look to their forests as a liquid asset for helping to service international debt obligations. In 2004, encougared by the World Bank, Congo announced its plans to step up the commercial logging of its rainforest. The timber industry is a major employer in Congo countries and thousands of workers rely on logging companies for basic healthcare and other services. Illegal logging is a significant problem as underpaid bureaucrats look to supplement their incomes by opening restricted areas to cutting.
Most of the deforestation in the Congo is caused by local subsistence activities by poor farmers and villagers who rely on forest lands for agriculture and fuelwood collection. Slash-and-burn is commonly used for clearing forest.
Typically, poor farmers and colonists gains access to forest lands by following logging roads, atlhough in the past few years civil strife has driven many Central Africans deep into the rainforest to escape the widespread violence.
Central Africa has been plagued with violence since the mid-90s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have moved through the forests of the Congo, stripping vegetation and devestating wildlife populations. National parks like Virunga — home to the endangered mountain gorilla — were looted and park staffers slaughtered. Refugee camps bordering parks added to the pressure on parklands.
The Congo Basin has sone of the world richest mineral deposits. Mining operations are poorly monitored and virtually no consideration is given to short-term health efects — much less to the environmental impact.
The Bushmeat Trade
Western lowland gorilla. There are about 90,000 western lowland gorillas in the wild. Some other gorilla species, like the mountain gorilla found in Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda are much rarer. Gorillas are threatened by hunting and deforestation.
Today the visitor to many Central African cities can purchase the meat of virtually any forest animal. Demand for bushmeat is driven by the desire for protein, not necessarily the animal source of the protein, the demand for which varies from market to market. In Gabon, McRae reports that annual per capita consumption of bushmeat may reach eight pounds annually.
The availability of bushmeat is made possible by the logging industry whose road construction opens rainforest to hunters and settlers. Hunters make a living by selling bushmeat to passing loggers, traders, and local villagers. The majority of bushmeat is brought to city markets by loggers.
Regional bushmeat hunting is expected is increase as commercial logging expands in the Congo Basin.
In the future
Conservation in the Congo faces innumerable challenges. Corruption, violence, poor infrastructure, political instability, severe poverty, and economic development pressure are just some of the hurdles facing forest preservation efforts in the Congo basin. All eyes are on Gabon, a country attempting to pioneer ecotourism in the region. If Gabon is about to pull off an economically viable ecotourism industry it could encourage other governments and private entreprises in the region to follow suit. Doing so could be the best long-term solution for both the region’s people and wildlife.