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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The fall of Zaire's leader Mobuto Sese Seko has seen the creation of a new government and a new name: the Democratic Republic of Congo. But what will the future hold for the vast ecology of the Congo? This African nation has the largest expanse of tropical forest of any country in the world apart from Brazil, along with vast mineral reserves and many unique animal species. John Hart, a scientist at New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society has worked in Congo’s Ituri Forest for over twenty years where he helped establish the Center for Forest Conservation and Research. He tells host Steve Curwood the change of government offers both promise and peril for this extraordinary country.


CURWOOD: The fall of Zaire strong man Mobuto Sese Seko has seen the creation of a new government and a new name: the Democratic Republic of Congo. But what will the government of Laurent Kabila mean for the vast ecology of the Congo? This african nation, which is about as big as the eastern half of the United States, has the largest expanse of tropical forest of any country in the world apart from Brazil, vast mineral reserves, and many species of animals found nowhere else. John Hart, a scientist at New York's Wildlife Conservation Society, has been working in Congo's Ituri Forest for over 20 years. He helped establish the Center for Forest Conservation and Research there. And he says the change in governments offers both promise and peril for this extraordinary country.

HART: What's extraordinary about it is in a continent which is generally quite dry, the Congo really has water. It contains most of the watershed of the Zaire River, second only to the Amazon in what comes out, in volume, out of its mouth. And it contains over a million square kilometers of tropical, moist forest, which is exceptional in a continent where much of the area is covered with scrub land, much drier types of habitats.

CURWOOD: How much of that forest is left after all these years under Mobutu?

HART: Well, actually, the -- in addition to the forest, it has tremendous mineral wealth. And during the Colonial period, much of the interest in exploitation of Zaire's resource base was focused on the minerals.

CURWOOD: And when you say minerals you're talking about gold and diamonds.

HART: Gold and diamonds are among the most prominent, but cobalt is also there, and copper, tin, uranium.

CURWOOD: Now, under the Mobutu regime, he concentrated much of his effort in making his wealth from the gold and the diamonds and the cobalt and the copper, and didn't take too much out of the forests, is that right?

HART: That's correct. Basically, so much -- well, there was quite an extensive infrastructure left in the mining area in Shaba, which is in southeastern Zaire, where the cobalt was come. Other minerals, such as gold and diamonds, could be acquired with a minimum of infrastructure. In fact, basically panned right out of the streams or dug out of the gravels, in the case of diamonds. And Mobutu simply arranged to have the traders that were exporting these leave him a certain cut. So as a result, there was no interest in the part of his regime in developing any infrastructure for the mining sector. It was simply --

CURWOOD: By that you mean roads and that sort of thing.

HART: That's right. That's right. They were simply interested in taking what they could. Now, forest exploitation in contrast demands infrastructure. You have to -- the logs can't be carried out in people's pockets like the gold and the diamonds. And so you have to have roads. You have to have the machines to build the roads come in. You have to have people who can repair and maintain these machines. And since the distances into these forest areas, and the forests that were being exploited, were so remote from the coast and from the markets, that tended to diminish any real interest in opening up these large, these forest areas, especially those that were remote. And this served in large measure to protect them.

CURWOOD: So in other words, Mobutu had enough swag from the diamonds and the gold and the minerals. He didn't need to make roads so he could cash in on his logs.

HART: That's it. And there was the other -- there was another twist, a more cynical one, which is actually one that many Zairians adhere to. And that is that he also preferred to have the roads and the transportation, all the transportation infrastructure and communication infrastructure, deteriorate. As it was easier to maintain control over a disorganized, unconnected population.

CURWOOD: With this new regime, will you expect to see more roads being built, and therefore the rate of logging to pick up?

HART: Indeed we will. And in fact, even before the administration was firmly in place in the eastern part of the country, road building was moving ahead, in some cases organized by local chambers of commerce in some of the towns. And among the first things that will come out of those, along those roads, especially into the forest, will be logs cut by small hand-operators, but paving the way certainly for larger operations. So, while the new regime has certainly expressed an interest in sustainable use of its resources and its forest resources, there still will be a very vulnerable period of time before which the legislation, the knowledge, and the management can be put into place, during which these forests remain very much at risk.

CURWOOD: Now, John, you founded the Center for Forest Conservation and Research, where people learn how to protect and study the forest plants and animals in Zaire, in the Congo. Has the new government of Laurent Kabila said anything about whether you can continue your work?

HART: Actually, we've just begun negotiations with them, so it will be quite interesting to see what their priorities will be. My hunch is that they're going to be more interested in crash courses in training foresters and park guards, and less interested in the esoteric study of chimpanzees and honey eating. However, the fact that they're making conservation an important issue, or an issue even of concern at this point, where so much is tenuous in that country, indicates in our minds something of a favorable commitment. And we'll advance -- we'll see how things go, but we're ready to engage.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much for sharing your views and opinions gathered during what -- more than 20 years in the Congo in Zaire. John Hart is a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. Thank you,sir.

HART: Thank you very much.



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