Raymond Baloza is the aging head of the ramshackle wooden school in Kimwabi, an island in the mangroves where the houses are built atop millions of discarded oyster shells. He pointedly observes that the village was here long before the park.

“Everything seems to be OK,” he said. “But coexistence has some difficulties.” According to Baloza, “All the activities our population used to do — making charcoal, hunting for monkeys — are forbidden so it’s difficult for the people to pay the schools fees, it’s hard to live.”

Locals forced into illicit trade?

Bernard Makiese lives in Kilometre 5, a beachfront village on the main road. He is a Khadafi, the name appropriated from the former Libyan dictator and given to the young men who sell smuggled gasoline. Makiese stores his wares, which have been ferried across the river from Angola, in old bottles of pastis and offloads the cheap imports to the steady stream of cars and motorcycles passing through.

“If you forbid people from doing stuff but don’t replace it, if you don’t provide jobs instead,” Makiese says, “then it’s clear that people will turn to trafficking and crime.”

The trade in goods from Angola such as cement and petroleum products is substantial and provides a livelihood for many local people but the legal status of these shipments is hazy. Most operators don’t have a license to import but the authorities have embraced the commerce.

“You can’t separate the official from the unofficial,” Collet says. “In the law it’s all illegal but they pay all the taxes to the government agencies when it comes into the port.” Collet is especially aggravated by kibubu, a method of smuggling the gasoline hawked by the likes of Makiese. On the Angolan bank, fuel is poured into the bottom of specially adapted boats and by night driven across the mouth of the river into the mangrove forest.

The dense mangrove forest of the Mangrove Marine Park provide cover. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.
The dense mangrove forest of the Mangrove Marine Park provide cover. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.

In a secluded spot the cargo is transferred into 53-gallon jerry cans, typically leaving behind sizable spills to be found by Ngeri Mpayi and his rangers. The enthusiastic acquiescence of the tax collectors and the rumored involvement of the military in the gasoline business means that for Collet, the state can be actively unhelpful, not simply unable to help.

Collet acknowledges that the park’s prevailing approach to conservation —“repression, just repression,” as he puts it — can cause frustration among the population. In the last two years, using money provided by the World Bank to a local NGO, the park has launched a community program and so far established 20 committees that intend to better educate and include locals in conservation. Collet hopes to eventually set up 60 committees, but as ever in Congo, a scarcity of cash intrudes on the best of intentions.

The park has donated learning materials to the school in Kimwabi and given a generator and 1,600 yards of electric cabling to another village. But, says Collet, “We haven’t created any economic projects because of lack of funds.”

The ICCN boss, Wilungula, recognizes that there are significant problems and limited options.

“The reality of not having compensating solutions is a real problem because conservation limits the access of a population to resources,” he said. “We don’t yet have enough financing to offer the people alternatives.”

Other sources of income

Tourists — expatriates and wealthy Congolese who fly down from Kinshasa to spend time in the mangroves and on the beaches — contribute about $25,000 each year while donations usually bring in an extra $75,000 to $125,000. The park’s finances are considerably healthier than they were before Collet’s arrival but the coffers are still well short of the $800,000 he needs.

“It’s not very much, it’s nothing at all compared to Virunga,” he says, referring to the world-famous refuge for critically endangered mountain gorillas in eastern Congo. Virunga is one of the five large Congolese national parks which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, a designation which facilitates fundraising from institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank and management contracts with organizations like African Parks.

“These sites mobilize the financing of the international community,” confirms Wilungula. Howard Buffett, son of Warren, one of the world’s richest men, recently spent $20 million on a hydroelectric plant intended to benefit the communities living around Virunga and committed another $39 million to build two more facilities with the EU and British government.

“Almost the only protected areas in Congo which have any money are the World Heritage parks,” says Collet. “A small park like us doesn’t get any attention even if its ecological importance is evident.”

In an effort to better attract donors and abide by government directives, Collet has formed an NGO called Congo Basin Biodiversity Conservation (CBBC) which in 2013 signed a private-public partnership with the ICCN to manage the Mangrove Marine Park for 10 years. Collet is one of CBBC’s founding members and they hope to open a European branch later this year to assist with lobbying. “The big public funders don’t want to work directly with the government and the ICCN is a government agency,” he says. “But they will support the NGO which has the partnership agreement.”

Private funding and strange bedfellows

Collet hopes that in the future both public bodies and the private sector will eagerly champion the park but for the time being the latter is his biggest source of capital.

“Funding from private companies is much easier,” says Collet. “They put more trust in the park’s managers and the big thing for them is results.”

Among the park’s benefactors are Rawbank, Congo’s largest commercial bank, and Dan Gertler, an Israeli mining tycoon with extensive assets in the country. (The US and British authorities are reportedly investigating Gertler in connection to Congolese mining deals which may have violated fraud and bribery laws). The park’s largest single donor is Perenco, an oil company and — on first inspection — an unnatural bedfellow.

A Perenco oil drill in Muanda. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.
A Perenco oil drill in Muanda. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.

The marine park shares Congo’s Atlantic seaboard with Perenco, an Anglo-French firm which has been extracting crude oil on and offshore since 2000 offshore (all outside the park’s borders). Rigs jot the horizon and hundreds of pumps puncture the land beyond the park, often installed within a stone’s throw of villages and crops. The country’s daily haul of around 25,000 barrels is paltry compared to the industries of nearby Angola, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, but Perenco is Congo’s sole producer.

When oil prices are favorable, it sends hundreds of millions of dollars to the treasury in Kinshasa. The company is the backbone of the economy of Muanda, the area’s main town of nearly 70,000, and employs more than 1,000 people when times are good. Perenco finances schools, hospitals, roads, libraries and electrification projects and in 2012 signed an accord with the ICCN to support the park, which it renewed two years later.

So far, so magnanimous.

However, a report commissioned by Congo’s Senate and completed in 2013 concluded that Perenco’s activities were also having a “disastrous impact” on the environment around Muanda. It claimed that Perenco had in places contaminated the soil and rivers with hydrocarbons, ejected untreated waste water into the ocean, and polluted the air by flaring excess gas and incinerating waste products. The report’s author, Arthur Kaniki Tshamala, a professor at the University of Lubumbashi, wrote that Perenco didn’t cooperate with his researchers and even deployed its own teams to “try to conceal the traces of pollution at different sites.”

A second report compiled by French and Congolese NGOs which was released in late 2012 recorded similar findings. Tshamala said in an interview that the company’s relationship with the ICCN is “as if Perenco is buying the right to pollute, instead of putting into practice rules to preserve the environment.”

Perenco refutes the allegations and claims that a subsequent unpublished investigation by the state oil company concluded that they were unfounded.

“Our assistance to the Mangrove Marine Park is a theme we are passionate about,” the company said in a written statement in response to a query, adding that “the richness of the site must be preserved.”

Collet points out that the ICCN has neither the power nor the responsibility to tackle such dilemmas. “All pollution taxes and penalties go to the minister of environment,” he says. In any case, the park is his priority and he sees opportunities for mutual benefit.

“Taking donations from companies which have to clean their image … this is already a principle,” Collet notes. “If this principle — ‘you pollute, you pay’ — wasn’t now the way of the world, why do we have these carbon credit programs?” Indeed, Collet’s long-term plan is dependent on convincing private companies “to take some responsibility, not just leave it all to the government or NGOs.”

Most of the local population has made a similar bargain with Perenco. Makiese drives a truck for one of the firm’s subcontractors when the company is operating a full quota of workers. “They hold up the economy here,” he says. “Without Perenco, we would all be living in darkness.”

It’s a common sentiment among those who live on the Congolese coast.

Future plans

The park’s future rests on Collet being able to raise much more money while persuading those who live in and around the site that conservation is serving their interests. The argument which should be most compelling is that without due care both Muanda and the surrounding area could disappear. The same goes for the population’s means of feeding itself.

But this kind of long-term reasoning often finds unsympathetic ears, especially when hard-pressed people are urged not to take advantage of readily available resources. However, the unstable sandy soil of the Congolese coast means that erosion is happening on fast-forward and is visible for all to see.

“60 metres [198 feet] of land has been lost to the sea since 1978,” says Chrispin Ngombo Vangu, the Muanda project coordinator for the government’s Programme of National Action for Adaptation to Climate Change. The sturdy mangrove forest doubles up as an effective natural line of defence and a vital nursery for the fish and shrimp which provide the population’s main source of subsistence.

“The mangroves’ roots protect everything from the ocean and absorb the force of the waves,” explains Vangu.

If enlightened self-interest doesn’t win the day, Wilungula says, the consequences will be terminal.

“If the mangroves are destroyed and consumed by the charcoal makers,” he says, “Muanda will disappear because the ocean will swallow it.”

Banner image: The coast of DRC. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.

William Clowes is a freelance journalist based in DRC. You can find him on Twitter at @WTBClowes

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