What are the environmental threats facing the Congo Basin right now?
It’s not just rising temperatures that have caused concern. Human activity – primarily deforestation – has disrupted the health and density of the rainforest, which has accelerated any effects that have occurred due to climate change.
According to a recent study by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the biggest drivers of deforestation over the past 20 years have been small-scale subsistence agriculture, clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, urban expansion, and mining.
Industrial logging, meanwhile, has been the biggest driver of forest degradation, which has had both environmental and societal effects, none of them positive.
Logging roads have opened up vast areas of the Congo to commercial hunting, leading to a poaching epidemic in some areas and a 60% drop in the region’s forest elephant population in less than a decade. Talk about scary.
Similarly, central Africa has been plagued with violence since the mid-90s.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have moved through the forests of the Congo, stripping vegetation and devastating wildlife populations. National parks like Virunga, home to the endangered mountain gorilla, were looted and park staffers slaughtered.
Refugee camps bordering parks added to the pressure on parklands. According to UNICEF, over the years, this civil strife has caused many children from communities inhabiting the forest to miss out on basic education.
These communities still live semi-nomadic lifestyles, where children are required to accompany their parents to the forest to hunt animals and harvest honey during certain seasons of the year.
The bushmeat trade is also in high demand. The availability of bushmeat is made possible by the extractive industries – like logging and mining – that build roads. These open up previously inaccessible rainforest to hunters and settlers.
Hunters make a living by selling bushmeat to passing loggers, traders, and local villagers. The majority of bushmeat is brought to city markets by loggers. Regional bushmeat hunting is expected to increase as commercial logging expands in the Congo Basin.
High population growth in central Africa is another major threat to the rainforest. Currently, an estimated population of over 75 million people inhabit the vast rainforest from all the six countries.
This increases the risk of climate and environmental changes, because it means more demand for energy and natural resources.
What’s being done to help the situation?
Not everything is doom and gloom, mind, at least not yet!
There are a few suggested ways in which things can be improved. Having sustainable forest management, for example, would require using forestry practices that meet our current needs while giving future generations the chance to meet theirs. This is possible.
According to the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), this could be achieved through fighting against irresponsible and unsustainable practices in order to secure a supply of forest resources in perpetuity (quantity and quality). Removing old, damaging methods of economic growth is the key here.
Additionally, protecting important habitats and maintaining the ecosystems that forests provide could help control the effects of climate change that worsen as the years go by.
Under a revolutionary scheme in DR Congo, which is home to the majority of the Congo Basin, communities were recently granted legal ownership of the forest area they live in.
This is in addition to organised workshops and training schemes which better educate communities on conflict-resolution. This has become a powerful tool in halting the decline of the Congo Basin rainforest, while alleviating poverty in one of the world’s lowest income regions.
Governments working hand in hand with logging companies protect the high conservation value areas and reduce impact logging. This assists in data collection, analysis, and monitoring of timber cutting within the forest.
Young activists are taking part in conservation efforts too. A 24-year-old Congolese climate activist Remy Zahiga plants trees in areas damaged by mining and lobbies authorities, helping to counteract previous exploitation and restore the forest to its original state.
He uses social media networks to highlight the reality of what is happening and seeks to get the attention of leaders at national and international levels.
This is the time to tackle the climate change emergency crisis together to avert the long-term problem the future could face. Everyone can get involved via social media and online petitions – even if they live on different continents.