Contest in the Congo: Central Africa’s Shot at Sustainable Development

By James Deutsch

As some 30 million votes are counted in the wake of elections this month in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), another contest is shaping up in the region between those who would build systems of fair governance and those who would ransack Central Africa for its natural resources.

These are the best of times and the worst of times in the Congo Basin. On the one hand is real progress towards democracy, better governance, and more sustainable management of the region’s vast natural resource wealth. On the other are foreign investors and their local allies bent on exploiting those resources: oil, timber, wildlife, minerals, and land.

The future of the world’s second largest and most intact tropical rainforest, as well as the 100 million people (and 100,000 elephants and 200,000 gorillas) who depend on it for their livelihoods, rests on which trend becomes dominant.

Forest Elephants at Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, Andrea Turkalo © WCS


Political, economic, and environmental progress has been extraordinary in the region over the past ten years. DRC (formerly the Belgian Congo) emerged from civil war in 2006, held its first democratic election, and now votes again. Gabon staged peaceful elections two years ago after the death of its long-serving president.

The Republic of Congo (formerly French Congo) has finally moved on from communism and civil war and rebuilt its infrastructure and capital, Brazzaville (a city rated eight years ago by The Economist as the worst place to live on Earth). Cameroon, though ruled by the same president since 1982, no longer competes for Transparency International’s rating as the world’s most corrupt country.

At the same time, the area has enjoyed historic economic gains. The Gulf of Guinea will soon provide a quarter of U.S. oil imports. Some of the world’s largest veins of iron, gold, and coltan (a source of tantalum – a key component in a host of consumer electronics products) are found in the Congo. Increasing commodity prices have turbo-charged economies across the region, though wealth distribution remains highly skewed.

Western Lowland Gorilla, Julie Larsen Maher © WCS


Perhaps the most rapid progress, though, has been in environmental protection. All regional powers have honored their pledge to set aside 10 percent of their land as national parks. Supported by the U.S. and Europe, their environment ministers have created a regional body, COMIFAC, to drive conservation and sustainable development.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has certified many logging concessions to be ecologically responsible. DRC has cancelled crookedly awarded logging rights. Gabon, meanwhile, has halted the export of unworked logs and the flaring of natural gas while committing itself to a low-carbon development strategy.

Sadly, however, the Congo’s rich natural resources, the basis for its newfound economic growth, have set in motion the very actions that could undermine its recent environmental progress. Logging roads cut through tropical rainforests provide access to poachers as well as loggers. Ivory has hemorrhaged from the region as forest elephants (a unique species necessary for forest regeneration) have been decimated.  Multinational companies are building some of the world’s biggest iron and gold mines.  And the race to clear rainforest to plant oil palm has just begun.

Forest Elephants at Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic, Andrea Turkalo © WCS


In any part of the world, accelerating natural resource extraction would pose challenges for governance, the environment, and human rights.  But in a region with no tradition of transparency, democratic accountability, free markets, or income equality, this acceleration is potentially catastrophic.

If payments for natural resources pervert institutions faster than they can be built, Central Africa will follow Nigeria, Sudan, and Venezuela into a long-term corruption trap. If, on the other hand, government and civil society succeed in building mechanisms to regulate resource extraction and protect the environment and human rights, then Central Africa could follow Botswana and Brazil along a more equitable and sustainable development path.

What can we in the developed world do to nudge Central Africa in the right direction?  Two things, I think.  First, we can support the development of institutions to create transparency, accountability, and the wise management of natural resources. The U.S. Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, currently up for renewal by Congress, is a pillar of such support. Our investment in this will be returned many times over.

Second, we can work to ensure that companies and funders such as the World Bank enforce strict codes of practice with respect to transparency, the environment, and human rights.  U.S. corporations—and those of our trading partners, including Asia—must support African governments that don’t yet have institutions to protect their people and environment.  Together we can help Africans build their economies without destroying their natural resource base.

A majority of voters in DRC are doing their part to ensure that the good guys win the contest in the Congo. As the consumers of Central Africa’s resources, we need to do ours.

James Deutsch directs the Africa Programs of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which employs over 1,000 staff across Africa. He has lived and worked as a teacher and zoologist in Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi.

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