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The Congo Basin’s 10 most consequential stories from 2021

For the Congo Basin, 2021 proved to be an up-and-down year. Funding commitments totaling in the billions of dollars were announced that would help forested countries preserve some of the highest-quality tropical rainforest left on the planet. And research into the world’s largest tropical peatland, which is found in the Congo Basin, continues to expand to include a growing team of researchers and new avenues for study.

At the same time, the loss of forest cover in the Congo Basin is on the rise. There are also signs that the patience of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may be wearing thin as leaders wait for promised financing to compensate them for the avoidance of destructive uses of forested land, such as agriculture and logging. In July, the DRC announced its plans to end a 19-year moratorium on the issuance of logging concessions in the country. The repercussions of an August accident at a mine in Angola also rippled through the very lifeblood of the basin, the Congo River itself.

The region’s spectacular wildlife remains under threat from habitat loss and globally driven trade. Still, people and organizations are working every day to keep these animals safe, often at great risk to themselves.

Here are 10 stories that Mongabay published in 2021 that will help bring the state of the Congo Basin into sharper focus.

1. Gabon becomes first African country to get paid for protecting its forests

Gabon has been a leader in tackling deforestation among African nations. The government has committed to sustainably managing its forests, and today still retains 88% forest cover. In recognition of its efforts, the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), an agreement between six Central African countries and six funding partners in the Global North, issued a $17 million payment to Gabon, part of the $150 million pledged under the initiative, writes contributor Jim Tan.

With its low population and high urbanization compared to its neighbors, Gabon is something of an anomaly in Central Africa. It has a relatively robust economy as well, fueled largely by oil production that has provided an economic foundation that other countries struggle to match. As a result, it’s difficult to say if the model in Gabon might be replicable in less stable and poorer countries such as the DRC or the Central African Republic. Leaders in Gabon also know that oil production cannot last forever, and how the country diversifies its economy, potentially with help from payments such as those from CAFI, may hold the key to continued protection of its forests.

Eighty-eight percent of Gabon is covered in tropical rainforest and the country has an average deforestation rate of less than 0.1%, making it a high-forest, low-deforestation (HFLD) country. Image by jbdodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

2. Logging company moves into intact Gabon forest as village fights to save it

Despite the positive statistics that helped Gabon secure its designation as a high-forest, low- deforestation country, logging has increased in the Central African country in recent years. Reporter Benjamin Evine-Binet investigated a case in which a Chinese forestry company had secured a concession that overlapped with forest that the people living in a nearby village depend on for food, fish and other resources. The construction of logging roads through the area raised concern, and in August 2020, the village of Massaha began a campaign to have the forest reclassified under Gabon’s forest code.

Massaha community members in a hunting management meeting. Image courtesy of Graden Froese.

3. DRC environment minister panned for allegedly facilitating illegal concessions

Ève Bazaiba Masudi, the DRC’s environment minister, has reportedly tried to seek community consent for a logging concession illegally issued by her predecessor. When the move was revealed, Félix Tshisekedi, president of the DRC, started an inquiry into “questionable contracts” in the country. But thus far, the government appears to have taken little action.

Bazaiba has faced considerable criticism in 2021. First, in July, the country announced that it planned to end a nearly two-decade-long moratorium on the issuance of logging concessions. Designed to stem the endemic corruption in the sector, observers say that, while not perfect, the moratorium has been an important tool in protecting the DRC’s forests. The country is second only to Brazil in the amount of tropical forest it contains. If the moratorium is lifted, a representative of Greenpeace Africa told Mongabay, it would threaten some 70 million hectares (173 million acres) of the DRC’s forest.

Aerial view near Yangambi, Tshopo Province, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

4. $1.5 billion Congo Basin pledge a good start but not enough, experts say

This year’s climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow led to a $12 billion commitment from donor countries aimed at the global protection of forests and the carbon they pull from the atmosphere. Part of that pledge is $1.5 billion destined for countries in the Congo Basin, home to the world’s second-largest rainforest. Experts note that this is the most intact extent of tropical forest left on Earth, and therefore the global community should invest heavily in its protection.

Details of how these funds would help the Congo Basin countries forgo destructive development in favor of safeguarding the forest weren’t part of the commitment. And though conservationists applauded the move, they say that more money is needed to ensure protections of the Congo rainforest over the long term, reporter Jim Tan writes.

The Congo River. According to recent research, the degradation of tropical forests in Amazonia and Southeast Asia may soon make them net emitters of carbon, leaving the Congo Basin as possibly the last significant land-based tropical carbon sink. Image by Ahtziri Gonzalez/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

5. L.A.-sized tract of primary forest went up in flames in DRC province in 2020

In a worrying sign, data from Global Forest Watch revealed the DRC lost more forest in 2020 than in any other year in which forest loss has been recorded except for one. Punctuating this loss was the burning of more than 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) of primary rainforest in a single province. Farmers in the DRC and around the world use fire as a tool to clear land for agriculture.

Earlier research has shown that the DRC’s rapidly expanding population, combined with a dwindling bank of land suitable for agriculture, is one of the top causes of forest loss. Now, scientists believe that a shorter rainy season in the Congo Basin stemming from climate change is exacerbating forest loss and fires in particular, staff writer Malavika Vyawahare reports. Evidence also shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in the past two years.

Map courtesy of Southern African Development Community’s 2021 report on the state of food and nutrition security and vulnerability in Southern Africa. A label for the Democratic Republic of Congo has been added by Mongabay.

6. Layers of carbon: The Congo Basin peatlands and oil

The 2017 mapping and scientific “discovery” of the peatlands of the Congo Basin sent reverberations through the ecological research community. Lying in the middle of the Congo rainforest and straddling the border between the Republic of Congo and the DRC, this massive area of wetland full of partially decomposed organic matter is the size of England, and it contains more than 30 billion metric tons of carbon — about what the United States emits in 20 years.

Alongside this discovery, however, are plans by the two Congos to extract resources from the peatlands and potentially use the land for agriculture. In the Republic of Congo, already one of Africa’s top oil producers, surveys are underway to sort out whether a massive pool of oil that some contend could almost quadruple the country’s output really exists. If it does, the temptation to extract it and sell it could overwhelm arguments aimed at protecting the peatlands from impacts such as road building and spills. But as staff features writer John Cannon reported in part of a series on the Congo Basin peatlands, scientists point out the irony of trying to safeguard the peatland because of the carbon it contains while trying to extract a fossil fuel that will add more climate-warming carbon to the atmosphere.

A group of officials from Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNEP, FAO and several other international organizations conducting a review of peatland restoration in 2018. Image by Ricky Martin/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

7. An environmental ‘catastrophe’ in Southern Africa lingers with few answers

Toxic effluent from a diamond mine in Angola contaminated the Congo River, which drains a massive swath of the African continent. Mongabay features writer Ashoka Mukpo writes that the company, Catoca, acknowledged a breach in a tailings pool at the mine, but representatives said the negative effects weren’t widespread.

Satellite data contradicted that statement, revealing that the spill turned hundreds of kilometers of the river red. By mid-September, when the story was published, the accident was linked to at least 12 human deaths.

Pirogues on the Kasai River in the DRC prior to the spill. Image by Terese Hart via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0).

8. For Adams Cassinga, fighting wildlife trafficking in DRC is a life mission

The road to becoming a passionate conservationist has been a winding one for Adams Cassinga. He fled war in his native DRC as a teenager, did a stint as a newspaper reporter in South Africa, and helped mining companies navigate environmental regulations. Today, however, he runs Conserv Congo, an organization he founded that tackles wildlife trafficking. His goal, as he told contributor Soraya Kishtwari in September, is to end the plunder of wildlife in the DRC by investing in the knowledge, capability and passion of officials in the country. Now, he works alongside law enforcement and the country’s environmental agency, the ICCN, to bring poachers and traffickers to justice.

Adams Cassinga with a putty-nosed monkey. Image courtesy of Adams Cassinga.

9. The ecoguards who protect the DRC’s gorillas

The mountain gorillas of the eastern DRC are seen as a conservation success story, due in no small part to the people who dedicate their lives to ensuring their survival. The gorillas have to navigate diminishing habitat and a growing human population surrounding their forested sanctuaries in the region’s mountains as well as ongoing conflict, and these ecoguards put themselves in harm’s way to ensure the gorillas’ survival. Mongabay produced this film to tell their story.

(Note: This video is narrated in French; to view the English subtitles, click the settings icon at the bottom of the video, then click Subtitles/CC and select Auto-translate and English.)

10. Overcoming community-conservation conflict: Q&A with Dominique Bikaba

Dominique Bikaba co-founded Strong Roots Congo with the goal of meeting the needs of both people and wildlife. The organization operates in Kahuzi-Biega National Park near the eastern edge of DRC. The forests there are important not only to iconic animals like the Grauer’s gorilla, but also the Batwa people Indigenous to the region. With that in mind, Bikaba’s approach has been to look for ways to get past outdated models that prioritize wildlife over people and to find strategies that benefit both.

Banner image: Grauer’s gorilla troop in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Image courtesy of Strong Roots Congo.

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