Collapsing lung of Great Lakes region

DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi signs the deed of Accession to the Treaty establishing the EAC at a ceremony held  last Friday at State House Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY | STATE HOUSE KENYA

What you need to know:

  • Studies indicate that nearly 30 billion tonnes of carbon have been released as greenhouse gases due to forest encroachment in eastern and southern Africa.

The recent accession of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the East African Community (EAC) has been framed socio-economically while receiving comparatively little attention via the socio-ecological lens.
 A great deal has been made of the fact that the community’s contours can now be mapped from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
Even before commerce can lap far beyond either ocean’s shores, Félix Tshisekedi—the DRC’s President—has been quick to offer assurances that his country’s nearly 94 million-strong population will not be a statistical rounding error.
After signing the EAC Treaty accession documents in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on April 8, Mr Tshisekedi made no secret that he was caught in a shiver of excitement.
“Let me reiterate the desire of the DRC to see the creation of a new organ in the EAC that is solely focused on mining, natural resources and energy that will be based in the DRC,” he said, adding, “The people of the DRC not only want to benefit from the community economically but also want commerce and trade to thrive in an environment of peace and security for everyone.”

While the restive Great Lakes region has spent a disproportionate time putting out fires, Mr Tshisekedi talked up “renew[ing a] historical attachment” anyway. It’s safe to say his opposite numbers were pleased by the tenor of the remarks. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta—the EAC Heads of State Summit chair—spared no praise for the DRC, noting that it swells the community’s population to “about 300 million and our gross domestic product [to] $250 billion.” Even Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni outdid himself in his proclamation of a “common social infrastructure.” Rwanda’s Paul Kagame was more circumspect in his urging “to get down to do the work that is entailed in the statements we have made to our people.”

Carbon sink
The socio-ecological issues in the in-tray are dangerously full. Indeed, shifting weather patterns in the Great Lakes region mean the question of ecological footprint should be front and centre. Yet the Congo Basin’s potential to act as a carbon sink has been consigned to a subordinate role. Instead, news that some of the DRC’s vast minerals (lithium and cobalt) will steer the Fourth Industrial Revolution has met an enthusiastic audience.

Four days before President Tshisekedi signed the EAC deed of accession, the United Nations’s (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third volume of its assessment report. 
The report does not shy away from the fact that climate impacts on Africa will be brutally unforgiving even if the continent most probably emits the least greenhouse gases. It also highlights the role that forests can play in extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Straddling 300m hectares, the Congo Basin could well be the lungs of—if not Africa then certainly—the Great Lakes region. 
Yet the carbon-rich peatland faces widespread deforestation, with the DRC’s annual forest cover loss estimated at a dizzying one million hectares. 
The Inspection Générale des Finances’s 2021 report on the same made for grim reading. The DRC’s ombudsman tore into the “culpable laxity” of state actors that has seen moratoriums on logging concessions in the world’s second largest rainforest repeatedly violated.

Along with illegal logging, the migratory practice of shifting cultivation has contributed to widespread deforestation in the Congo Basin. Slash-and-burn farming methods intended to add potash to the soil as cultivators abandon one plot for another are widely believed to contribute to climate change.
Studies by organisations such as the African Forest Forum have established that nearly 30 billion tonnes of carbon have been released as greenhouse gases due to forest encroachment in eastern and southern Africa. Deforestation has made holding forest-based carbon a tough needle for the Congo Basin to thread.

Illegal logging
Among the more than 10,000 plant species that dot the Congo Basin is the African teak—popularly known as mvule in Uganda. Famed for building furniture and flooring, its seductiveness made plunder seem not just possible but perhaps inevitable during the Second Congo War. An inquiry into allegations around illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth in the DRC between May of 2001 and November of 2002 tore the lid off a Pandora’s box.

One of the sobering jolts the inquest unearthed was that the tragedy in question was one hardly launched by innocence and good intentions. It discovered that “timber extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its export…characterised by unlawfulness and illegality” unfolded with vivid, unsettling ease.
The report further stated: “Analysis of satellite images over a period of time reveals the extent to which deforestation occurred in Orientale Province between 1998 and 2000. 

The most harvested forests in the areas were around Djugu, Mambassa, Beni, Komanda, Luna, Mont Moyo and Aboro. This logging activity was carried out without consideration of any of the minimum acceptable rules of timber harvesting for sustainable forest management or even sustainable logging.”
It added: “Timber harvested in this region, which is occupied by the Ugandan army and RCD-ML, has exclusively transited or remained in Uganda. Our own investigation in Kampala has shown that mahogany originating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is largely available in Kampala, at a lower price than Ugandan mahogany. This difference in price is simply due to the lower cost of acquisition of timber. Timber harvested in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Uganda pays very little or none at all.”
In January, the UN’s top court ordered Uganda to pay the DRC $325m in reparations following the Second Congo War that played out from 1998 to 2003. The International Court of Justice assessed $60m for damage to natural resources such as timber.

Though tenuous, there have also been attempts to adopt sustainable agroforestry systems in the DRC’s degraded forest areas. It—for one—joined the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) programme in 2008.
But as a 2021 report by the country’s ombudsman made clear, illegal logging takes place with impunity. Human-induced climate change threatens the Congo Basin’s success in acting as a bulwark against global warming. The wilderness area—home to some of the world’s critically endangered animal species—has also come to be seen as a petri dish for zoonoses. Animal agriculture continues to thread through its food culture with unintended sinister repercussions, with pathogens in wildlife spilling over to humans.

Unlike the minerals and nearly 94 million-strong population, a price tag cannot be attached to the Congo Basin’s status as the lungs of the Great Lakes region. With the DRC now in its tent, the EAC is duty-bound to ensure that the tropical rainforest continues to draw in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. A collapsed lung should be out of the question.