East Africa

The Great Lakes region’s lung is collapsing.

The recent admission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the East African Community (EAC) has been presented primarily via a socioeconomic lens, with the socio-ecological lens receiving far less attention.

The fact that the community’s contours can now be plotted from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean has received a lot of attention.

Félix Tshisekedi, the DRC’s President, has been eager to assure that his country’s almost 94 million-strong population will not be a statistical rounding error even before commerce can go far beyond either ocean’s beaches.

Mr. Tshisekedi revealed that he was shivering with joy after signing the EAC Treaty accession documents in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, on April 8.

“Let me reiterate the DRC’s desire to see the creation of a new organ in the EAC that is solely focused on mining, natural resources, and energy, and that is based in the DRC,” he said, adding, “The people of the DRC not only want to benefit economically from the community, but also want commerce and trade to thrive in an environment of peace and security for everyone.”

Despite the fact that the restive Great Lakes region has spent an inordinate amount of time putting out flames, Mr Tshisekedi advocated for “renew[ing] a] historical bond.”

It’s safe to say that his opponents were pleased with the tone of his statements. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, who chairs the EAC Heads of State Summit, lavished praise on the DRC, adding that it boosts the community’s population to “nearly 300 million” and its GDP to “$250 billion.”

Yoweri Museveni of Uganda went above and beyond in proclaiming a “single social infrastructure.” Paul Kagame of Rwanda was more cautious in his call for “getting down to work on the job that is required in the statements we have given to our people.”

CO2 absorber
The in-tray of socio-ecological issues is dangerously full. Indeed, the subject of ecological footprint should be front and center in the Great Lakes region due to changing weather patterns.

The Congo Basin’s promise as a carbon sink, however, has been relegated to the background. Rather, the announcement that some of the DRC’s huge minerals (lithium and cobalt) will drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution has sparked excitement.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third volume of its assessment report four days before President Tshisekedi signed the EAC deed of membership.

Even though Africa emits the fewest greenhouse emissions, the research acknowledges that climate consequences on Africa would be harsh and severe. It also emphasizes the importance of trees in removing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

The Congo Basin, which stretches over 300 million hectares, may easily be the lungs of the Great Lakes region, if not Africa.

Despite this, rampant deforestation threatens the carbon-rich peatland, with the DRC’s yearly forest cover loss estimated to be one million hectares.
The report on the same from the Inspection Générale des Finances in 2021 was bleak.

The ombudsman for the Democratic Republic of the Congo slammed state actors for their “culpable carelessness” in routinely violating logging concession moratoriums in the world’s second-largest rainforest.

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.”

Reparations
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.

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