The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, is home to a massive amount of forest – in the range of 112 million and 154 million hectares (between 276 to 380 million acres) depending on how it’s defined. That amount of forest means DRC is also home to critical carbon stocks that are key to keeping the global average temperature below a 2-degree Celsius rise – a goal set at the UN climate talks in Paris in 2015. According to Global Forest Watch (GFW), DRC houses over 19.4 million metric tons (over 21 million tons) of carbon stocks in living forest biomass.
Most of the north of DRC is home to the Congo Basin, described by the WWF as a “mosaic of rivers, forests, savannas, swamps and flooded forests.” The Congo Basin traverses six countries and is home to endangered wildlife, 10,000 species of tropical plants, and thousands of species of birds, mammals, and fish. Human beings have lived there for over 50,000 years.
Despite the massive natural wealth of its forests, the people of DRC benefit surprisingly little from its resources. DRC is plagued by political discord and dysfunction, poverty, lack of education, and violence from armed bandit groups. In a country of over 77 million people, GFW notes that only 16,000 are directly employed by the forestry sector. There are also unknown numbers engaged in the illegal charcoal trade, which is ravaging some forested areas, as well as illegal logging.
But there are also many, many examples of those with lifelong connections to the forests in DRC: conservationists, artists, carpenters, and others. Here are a few of their stories, as collected in the forests of DRC in late 2016 by Leonora Baumann and Etienne Maury.
Ewing Lopongo: Salonga National Park conservationist
The first time Ewing Lopongo, 36, saw a wild antelope during her training to become a park ranger, known locally as an eco-guard, she recalls screaming with joy. The event strengthened her will to pursue a career in conservation. Twelve years later, Lopongo is now a state-registered conservationist with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), in charge of the Monkoto sector of Salonga National Park, the largest tropical rainforest reserve in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park is 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) and is described by UNESCO as “one of the most extensive in the world.”
Lopongo says the most rewarding part of her work is being out in the field and coming into contact with the animals and people who live in the forest. Whenever she can, she gets into the park and reaches out to communities to emphasize the importance of conservation zones for the future. She explains to villagers how their daily observations – such as unusual rainfall or animal scarcity – could be consequences of over-exploitation, indicating the importance of conservation efforts. She believes the method is more efficient than simply punishing poachers and those who violate the park’s rules.
Born and raised in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital city, Lopongo always wanted to work in a field where women were underrepresented. After graduating from high school, she took classes in biology at the University of Kinshasa, but was seduced by ecology and decided to pursue a career at the ICCN. “The obstacles, they are like a barrier preventing you to move forward,” Ewing said. “But if you try to jump over the barriers no matter what, that’s how I became what I am today. If you have the passion, you can adapt.”
Lopongo’s husband also works with the ICCN in a different part of the country. The distance between them makes their work even more difficult.
“On the marital side, it isn’t easy. It means that you have to be separated from your husband for an unknown [amount of] time,” she said. The couple doesn’t have children yet – an unusual situation for a Congolese woman in her mid-30s – because she put career before family life.
It was not easy for Lopongo to reach her current position. She said that in the conservation world and within traditional Congolese society, women are often seen as weak by men, and women’s rights aren’t widespread.
“Really, there is no woman in charge in the protected areas,” Lopongo said, and added that she believes she is only one of two female conservationists in DRC. (The assertion is very difficult to verify). She wants to be a model for women in DRC, possibly by writing her memoirs.
Wally: artist, activist, and farmer
Wally (he withheld his last name) lives in Monkoto, a small town in the heart of the Congolese jungle that is an administrative district of Salonga National Park. There, on a dirt road that stretches between a decayed monument celebrating former ruler Mobutu Sese Seko and a small pharmacy, stands a wooden billboard where locals regularly stop by to look at pinned-up sheets of paper. Hidden in the trees next to it is Wally’s house, and the sheets of paper are his drawings.
A longtime resident of the area, Wally remembers as a child seeing elephants come to the villages from dusk to dawn, and being chased away by locals who made every imaginable noise. Now, he says pointing at his grandchildren sitting nearby, “Perhaps they will never see a live elephant.” After elementary school in Monkoto, Wally moved to Kinshasa and later studied fine arts there for two years at the Academy of Fine Arts. After his studies ended prematurely due to a lack of money, he worked for several companies and finally returned home to farm and worked as a mechanic for the newly created park in the 1970s.
Despite all the detours, with encouragement from one of his teachers from the Academy in Kinshasa, Wally never gave up drawing. He watched documentaries about the Krüger National Park in South Africa, read Tarzan-like comics, and observed as officials came to Monkoto to raise awareness about conservation.
“Those from the government, they came with blackboards and cameras, but the message didn’t get across,” he said. To Wally, the message must be carried out by locals sitting with community leaders, talking with women, reaching out to children. “The kids, here, they are my main collaborators,” he said with a solid note of hope for the future.
Wally describes his drawings in literal terms.
“These drawings…they are messages, and the one who sees them can spread them in this village, and this village,” he said. For the next phase of his work, he hopes to get a bicycle – an economical means of transport – to travel from the park to surrounding communities and spread his message. In this way he hopes that future generations will have a chance to see elephants somewhere other than in his drawings.
André Kasereka Syangeha: carpenter
In a backyard of Nyamilima, a remote community in DRC’s North Kivu province, stands a large warehouse surrounded with planks of wood and drying laundry hung above them. This is the carpentry shop of the Caracciolo Fathers, a Christian congregation that settled in the area in 1985 with enough funds to start various activities. André Kasereka Syangeha, a smiling man in his 50s dressed in red overalls with worn-out suit pants sticking out of the bottom, is in charge of the place. His official title is manager of the Father Caracciolo Carpentry in Nyamilima.
Syangeha started to work as a carpenter in 1977 at the other end of the country, later becoming a tutor, and moving to Nyamilima to train young people. Since 2002, he has been running the priest’s carpentry workshop, a remarkably well-equipped structure for the area. But he says that tools aren’t enough to work: The raw material, wood, is often lacking to craft items of quality, forcing his crew to use lower-quality cypress or eucalyptus. Syangeha looks back wistfully on a time when he worked in the Bas-Kongo province, when hardwood was abundant.
Bordering Virunga National Park – home of the Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered – the forests of Nyamilima are for the most part either protected or used for charcoal production. Electricity is also a concern, and carpentry relies on the parish’s generator, as does the rest of the village.
Half a dozen carpenters work here, crafting furniture, house framework doors, school desks and church ornaments for the village and its surroundings. Sometimes, thanks to the priests’ truck, they can also deliver orders to Goma, about 60 miles to the south. But in this area where rebel groups are active and kidnappings a common practice, the journey is dangerous. A few weeks after reporters visited the village, a priest from the parish was kidnapped on the road and released a few days later unharmed.
Though Syangeha says his salary is “insignificant,” he is happy to work with wood and describes it as a vocation. It has allowed him to care for and provide an education to his 16 children, many of who have now established their own homes. His eldest son did not embrace the career of carpenter, but he hopes to train some of his youngest children to follow in his footsteps.
Marie-Médiatrice Shamba: charcoal wholesaler
Marie-Médiatrice Shamba is a charcoal wholesaler in her 40s and lives in DRC’s North Kivu province where several militias are active. Shamba lives in Goma at the foot of the Nyiragongo volcano, which is described by some scientists as “one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.” Her region is also at the heart of a volatile area where conflicts have been rampant for the last two decades. Her husband, a soldier in the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, died when she was 22, and since then she has had to be self-sufficient. She never managed to get the pension due to widows of soldiers and has two children to care for.
Thanks to micro-finance loans, Shamba has started several small businesses over time. Sometimes, she made very little profit; other times she didn’t get her investment back. Life has been tough on her, she says, but she seems to have never lost her faith, courage, nor her smile and radiant energy. After years of saving, Shamba was recently able to start her current business as a charcoal wholesaler.
Shamba travels to surrounding chiefdoms to collect or make “makala” (as charcoal is called in Swahili), and then brings it back to her home in Goma. There, she sells it to locals who mostly rely on it for domestic use in this province where Shamba says that fewer than 5 percent of homes have electricity. Depending on the quality of the wood used to make charcoal by burning it with little access to air, the price of a 50-kg (approximately 110-lb) bag varies between $20 and $25 in the city. Shamba’s profit is around $1 per bag.
But the journey from the chiefdoms to the city is rough: Trucks need to be unloaded at the halfway point to pass pools of mud, kidnappings are common, and rangers from the ICCN regularly establish checkpoints to verify the provenance of cargo. Rebel groups hiding in the typically jungle use charcoal illegally produced in Virunga National Park to finance their activities.
Marcel Muhima: retired charcoal burner
The hilly landscape of Kisigari, in North Kivu province, is an interwoven green patchwork of small forests and crop fields of manioc and legumes (such as beans and peanuts) dotted with villages. Here and there, a plume of smoke emerges from from charcoal ovens in the woods, where logs are left to slowly burning covered by soil to keep most of the oxygen out.
Marcel Muhima, 74, was born and raised in the hamlet of Bushenge and was a charcoal burner for years. A decade ago he passed his business on to his son. In DRC, where the average lifespan is 51, Muhima now feels too old for such a physical job and only helps occasionally. But he says that little has changed since the time he did the work himself. On the plot rented by his family they plant eucalyptus, a fast-growing species, for charcoal production. They sell it in Goma and save some for their own consumption. Like many others in the area, they also farm but don’t produce enough to sell.
Charcoal, Muhima says, is life here. People who don’t plant trees for it can’t make a living. He explained through a translator that since the Belgians left (DRC gained its independence from Belgium in 1960), things have gone downhill. Food crop plantations and companies closed down, damaging the local economy and leading to a surge in the charcoal business.
While the arrival of electricity in the Virunga region could curb this trend, he says the $200 fee just to get connected is not affordable. “I rarely even see a $20 bill. How could I get that much?” he asks. Among others, the Warren Buffet Foundation is financing a project to electrify the area, and Muhima’s village already has electrical poles in place. But this initiative still has many challenges to face before succeeding.
Usually, Muhima’s family can only produce 20 to 30 bags of charcoal each season, enough to buy clothes and pay school tuition for the children while leaving the young trees get older. Sometimes, the family doesn’t make any money for four or five years in a row, waiting for the trees to grow large enough. But this season, he says, things didn’t go well, and they had to burn young trees because they needed money.
This article was first published as part of a series on MongaBay