It is possible that the environmental challenge in Africa that will have the biggest impact on the rest of the world is the degradation of the Congo Basin rainforest. According to Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, in her 2009 book The Challenge for Africa, the cutting down of trees in the Congo Basin has already led to a 5 – 15% drop in rainfall in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., and as much as 25% just north of the Black Sea.
This forest is one of the biggest lungs for the planet, ranked up there with the Amazon basin, the boreal forests of the northern latitudes and the oceans with their photosynthesizing algae and phytoplankton. In addition to the oxygen it provides, it is an incredible force for stabilizing weather patterns throughout Africa. Remove the forest, and the Sahara will get a lot bigger. It is also a hotbed of diversity. 30% of the 10,000 known species of plants in the forest are endemic (occurring only in the Congo Basin), 10% of the world’s bird species can be found in the basin, and over 900 species of butterflies bring a splash of color to the deep shadows. There are also 400 species of mammals including 3 of the 4 species of great apes.
As is so often the case, the environmental impacts are snowballing. The extraction industries, both timber and mining, punch roads through the forest to access their operations. This gives much deeper access to bushmeat hunters, slash-and-burn cultivators, and rebel militias. It also creates “edge habitat” in areas that were once core forest, changing the mix of species. One quarter of this forest is already under timber concessions, and more than that is essentially ungovernable and is under the control of militias.
The bushmeat trade in the Congo Basin has exploded. No longer just a way for the locals to feed themselves and their families, it is now an enormous commercial enterprise. Over one million tons of bushmeat are taken from the forest each year, with 13,000 pounds of that going to the U.S. and Europe every month. There is also still a strong illegal pet trade going on, with chimpanzees and gorillas being stolen out of the forest and exported.
It is difficult to know if political stability in the Congo Basin would help or hurt conservation of the forest. On the one hand, the dangers of the region have probably kept some development from happening. On the other hand, anybody with the money to pay off the local warlord can essentially do whatever they want in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the richest places in the world in terms of natural resources.
In the post-Copenhagen discouragement, there have been signs of a drop in carbon offsetting markets. Regardless of one’s stance on climate change, there could be disastrous consequences for the Congo forests if carbon markets collapse. Carbon emissions trading, and REDD (Reduction in Emissions through Destruction and Degradation) in particular, give incredible incentive not to cut down trees. According to Maathai, the DRC alone could generate as much as $200 million per year on the carbon market.
Uganda only holds a small sliver of the great Congo rainforest – an accidental piece of land in the Semiliki River valley squeezed between the Rwenzori Mountains and the border of DRC that has been protected as the Semliki Valley National Park. Uganda is an example of what can happen when forest destruction goes unchecked. Uganda only has about 14% of its original forest cover left, and in this country where over 90% of the population relies on charcoal and fuelwood for all of its energy needs, it is expected that wood will need to be imported within the next 10 – 20 years. The economic impacts of that will directly hit those least able to absorb the additional costs.
The good news is that the rainforest of the Congo Basin is still largely intact. With the right protections now, it can remain that way. Most of the companies that are extracting resources are from western nations, so people around the world can apply pressure to make sure that these operations act responsibly. We can purchase certified sustainably-harvested wood, keep our cell phones and computers longer (many of the minerals mined in the DRC, including coltan, are used in electronics), and try to educate anybody who thinks it is a good idea to keep a chimp or other wild animal as a pet. We can also support the establishment of roadless areas around the world, because we really don’t need to make it any easier for poachers and illegal loggers to access these threatened resources.
If you are interested in learning more about the Congo Basin Rainforest, here are some initiatives that are trying to protect it:
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala