An Inconvenient Choice

Picture of deforestation in the DRC. Photograph by Daniel Beltra of The Guardian When Charles Marlow made his way up the Congo in search of the notorious Mr. Kurtz at the turn of the twentieth century, he described the land as one of impenetrable jungle, a steamy, dense, green world to which white man had very little access. Over a hundred years later, the landscape immortalized by Joseph Conrad has been remarkably well preserved. While the Congo’s forest may have remained in tact for millennia, the world has lost about a third of its forest cover in the past five thousand years. Recent marginal improvements in the economic and political situation in the Congo basin, however, beg the question: how long will these forests be preserved? And more importantly, why have they been so resilient? On his journey, Marlow also describes a land occupied by savages, cannibals who have been transformed into worshippers of the white Kurtz. Living off the forest, these people exerted minimal damage on their treasured source of life. Today, two-thirds of the DRC’s population still relies on the rainforest.  With nearly seventy million people, vast natural resources, the lowest GDP per capita, and the second-lowest carbon emissions per capita, the Congo still remains the Heart of Darkness.

For the past twenty years, the Congo basin has been plunged into conflict. Not a stranger to human tragedy – think of King Leopold’s bloody reign earlier in the twentieth century – the DRC has not been experienced much economic and political success. The result: six million dead, a virtually non-existing economy, rampant corruption, and, almost ironically, vast tracts of unscathed forest, covering some 59% of the country. In fact, a recent study has shown that the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga National Park increased 12.5% from 2007-2009. Recently, however, a lull in the fighting has engendered a fear within conservationist ranks that economic recovery may lead to runaway deforestation. Citing the leasing of 57,900 square miles of land to commercial logging firms (about 10% of Congo’s forest), they are concerned that Congo’s rainforest is now in serious danger, and are scrambling to protect it.

This fear is not unfounded. Countries, with very few exceptions, tend to follow a similar course of economic development. Starting out poor, a country begins exploiting its natural resources (oil, natural gas, forest, water, etc.) to generate income. As it gets richer, its resources diminish, leading to environmental degradation – a good example here would be China, whose environmental record, though recently improving, has been through its rapid economic growth. After the long period of decline, the awakened citizens, through education provided by the destruction of their environment, realize the importance of preserving their country’s natural splendor. Development, of course, has made this possible, and so the land is restored to, if not to its prior glory, a decent level of preservation.

Brazil, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea – these are all countries which are currently caught in the middle. Their economic successes have been won at the expense of environmental deterioration. Preservation groups have already swooped into some of these nations, and they have already taken hold of much of the DRC’s forest. There, environmental success, or at least lack of failure, has been at the expense of a crippled population. Yet is there a way that the DRC can bypass environmental degradation and move straight into economic growth? Is there a new formula that defies the traditions of the West and current developing nations?

Perhaps, but in a country of 67 million people, with a GDP per capita of $349, this does not seem likely. The DRC, along with most countries in the Congo basin, is caught in a poverty trap. Conflict, corruption, and poverty have created a perfect storm, lowering the chance of economic development, and increasing the likelihood of environmental destruction. The question now is, do we, a country with a per capita GDP 138 times that of the DRC, and a per capita carbon emissions 432 times as high, have a right to expect true environmental cooperation on a global scale?

For the Congolese people, the answer is simple: economic growth, the lifting of people out of abject destitution, is definitely to be favored. For us, the West, the persistence of poverty may in fact be a solution to the [greater] problem of carbon emissions and global climate change.