written by Samah Elsayed
The story of the exploitation of Africa’s resources for the benefit of a few is sadly an all too familiar tale across the continent. Despite the wealth of resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country is mired in poverty and conflict. Colonialism, corrupt elites, western companies and foreign governments are all complicit in the pillaging of the DRC’s rich resources and the dire situation faced by many of its people. Since the outbreak of fighting in 1998, resource fueled conflict and poverty have lead to the deaths of more than 5.4 million people. This is the largest loss of life since the second world war. Yet this shocking statistic often remains unreported and out of the media spotlight. This global silence on the atrocities taking place in the DRC is fueled by the fact that many of the most influential nations are also benefiting from the theft of the country’s natural wealth.
This exploitation is clearly illustrated by the rapid deforestation of the DRC’s vast rainforest. The 180 million hectare Congo Basin Rainforest spans across the Democratic Republic of Congo, most of Congo-Brazzaville, the southeast of Cameroon, southern Central African Republic, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This vast ecosystem provides services such as food, water, medicine, livelihoods and shelter to over 75 million people and is also home to numerous endangered wildlife species. The DRC alone contains more than 12.5% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest, with only Brazil and Indonesia having larger areas. However unlike the much-publicized deforestation of the Amazon there has been little focus on the depletion of the Congo’s forests at the hands of Europe, America and Asia’s growing appetite for tropical wood.
Any understanding of the current dynamics in the DRC must be rooted firmly in the historical context as the legacies of colonial rule are still heavily influencing modern dynamics. Western imperialism reached the nation in 1885 when King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the country as his personal fiefdom. A small but heavily armed Belgian army forcibly conscripted youth whilst taking women hostage in order to force the men to tap abundant rubber trees in the region, amassing his personal wealth as well as building that of Belgium. This relatively recent reign of terror was one of the most violent and atrocious periods in human history. Between 1880- 1920 the country lost around half its population, an estimated 10 million people. Whilst public outrage instigated a change in rule from King Leopold II to the Belgian government, the results were no less barbaric or exploitative. Forced labor continued but now also for ivory, diamonds and uranium. As a further insult, the uranium used for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, came from the slave labor produced by the people of the Congo. Whilst the country officially gained independence in 1960, Belgium and other western countries still to this day retain economic power over the region. Attempts at control of the Congo’s resources, shrouded in a fear of communism, lead to the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Speaking out against Western control of resources lead to Lumumba’s kidnapping, torture and murder by Joseph Mobuto under instruction from the CIA and Belgian government.
The effects of colonization are all too evident in the rapid deforestation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The colonial era saw a collapse in indigenous social structure and traditional land rights. Prior to the brutal rule of King Leopold II, there was a natural fluidity between communities. Potential conflicts were resolved by the movement of people from one village to another. Village elders or chiefs sought to attract people to their settlements in order to build strength and as a result, good leadership and equity was fostered within villages. Belgian colonial rule forced people to remain in the area in which they were registered in order to grow crops to be paid as tax. Chiefs were able to remain in power so long as they retained control over their community and extracted wealth from them for the benefit of the colonial rulers. This arrangement continues to this day. Villagers have no secure access to land and can be pushed off their land at the whim of those in power. This landlessness places additional pressure on the rainforests.
The control and pillaging of the Congo’s resources, which began under King Leopold still continues to this day. Whilst the names of the actors involved have become more sophisticated and exploitation now under the guise of multinational corporations rather than a murderous King, the outcomes remain the same. This stripping of the DRC’s resources for the wealth of the few at the expense of the indigenous masses is prevalent in the forestry sector where foreign logging companies and corrupt elites are still being granted titles despite a moratorium halting activities. Even multinational development actors such as the World Bank, who were instrumental in establishing this moratorium, were found to be complicit. Additionally, an investigation by Greenpeace found that the Bank has invested in a company that deals with illegal timber from the DRC.
The rape of the DRC’s wealth highlights the need to move away from this capitalist model of exploitation of land and people for profit. Even so called development agencies such as the World Bank are complicit. There is a need for a new paradigm of development that puts people at the center and encourages an equitable distribution of resources and skills. The All African People’s Development and Empowerment Project (AAPDEP) is an effort spearheaded by Africans for Africans. AAPDEP organizes the highly trained and skilled sector of the African population to use their skills for the development of Our Africa and African communities everywhere. True development is only possible through liberation.