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MUANDA, Democratic Republic of the Congo—Two elephant tusks are wedged behind a photocopier. A stuffed antelope stands by the door, and a large framed photograph of President Joseph Kabila hangs on the back wall. Cosma Wilungula sits behind his desk in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital, patiently explaining his quandary.
For 12 years he’s run the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, or ICCN, the government agency responsible for the country’s protected areas. He knows only too well the limits of his influence. The truth is that the ICCN’s nearly 70 national parks, nature reserves and other protected areas—covering about 62 million acres, or roughly 10 percent of the country’s landmass—are largely left to fend for themselves. Some rise to the challenge; others don’t.
The Mangrove Marine Park, 250 miles west of Kinshasa near the city of Muanda, is one of the ICCN sites trying to make the best of a bad hand. The roughly 188,000-acre expanse of ocean, beach, savannah, and mangroves hugs Congo’s 23-mile strip of coastline. Here, the Congo River, a waterway of monstrous dimensions, concludes its epic passage across equatorial Africa and, raging at its denouement, has carved a 100-mile-long canyon into the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
In the aquatic forest that nestles into the Congolese side of the estuary, however, none of the ferocity is detectable. This riverine labyrinth of dense mangroves and little islands is utterly still—a haven to a variety of species, including manatees, and a bulwark against the coastal erosion. Today more than ever, it is a vital defense.
“Sixty meters [198 feet] of land has been lost to the sea since 1978,” says Chrispin Ngombo Vangu, the Muanda project coordinator for the government’s Program of National Action for Adaptation to Climate Change. The sturdy mangrove forest doubles up as an effective natural line of defense and a vital nursery for wildlife.
In theory, no one is supposed to live inside the 50,000 acres of mangroves, hardy trees that thrive in brackish wetlands and rise above the water on stiltlike roots. But a quarter of a century after the park was created, the forest continues to be home to seven villages and several semi-nomadic island-hopping communities. Funds envisaged for a resettlement program never materialized.
Strictly speaking, all flora and fauna is off-limits within the park’s boundaries, but inhabitants are allowed to catch shrimp and oysters, both of which are abundant, and some forms of sustainable fishing are accommodated. Felling trees to make charcoal or firewood and hunting animals such as monkeys and buffalo is illegal.
“The mangroves’ roots protect everything from the ocean and absorb the force of the waves,” explains Vangu. The consequences of losing the forest would be severe, according to Wilungula. “If the mangroves are destroyed and consumed by the charcoal makers,” he says, “Muanda will disappear because the ocean will swallow it.”
Marcel Collet, the park’s director since 2012, is a Belgian who has lived in Congo his entire life. Born into a family of coffee growers shortly before the end of colonial rule, he has spent more than three decades working with the country’s wildlife.
The park currently operates on a shoestring annual budget of between $100,000 and $150,000, the bulk of which comes from donations.
“The only thing the ICCN funds is the salaries of some of my full time staff,” Collet says, adding that these wages are “very small.” (The park has 21 permanent employees, including 12 rangers who are each paid about $45 a month.) Due to lack of resources, patrols to enforce rules against poaching and making charcoal are insufficient. Collet only has the means for a single team that tours the mangrove forest once every two or three days.
The beach and savannah sections of the park, partially protected areas in which existing communities are permitted to live, are especially exposed. The park’s guardians are continually trying to impress upon its residents the importance of conservation, but the marshy savannah is effectively free from surveillance all year round.
Those wishing to poach buffalo and antelope or use the land for commercial agriculture can do so with near impunity. The Congo’s shoreline is also an important nesting site for several vulnerable species of sea turtles, including the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the world’s largest living turtle. Collet can barely afford to put part-time rangers on the beaches during mating season. This year, due to financial constraints, he had to cut the program from five to three months, meaning that turtle eggs were lost to high tides and lawbreakers.
Despite the challenges, there has been progress. Upon his arrival five years ago, Collet decided to enforce the previously ignored law criminalizing the killing of turtles within the park and introduced the seasonal initiative that protects laying females and their eggs. Poaching has been cut dramatically, the courts have given wrongdoers heavy fines and, recently, even a custodial sentence. As a result, more than 60,000 baby turtles have been freed into the ocean, according to Collet.
He has also made headway in the mangroves against hunting and the scourge of deforestation. The density of mangrove wood makes it a highly prized source of firewood and charcoal, indispensable for a population largely without access to electricity.
“Everyone prefers to make charcoal from the mangroves because one can use a very small amount to prepare two or three cooking pots,” says Louis Ngeri Mpayi, the park’s anti-poaching chief. Ngeri Mpayi and his rangers have destroyed more than 2,000 homemade charcoal furnaces in the park since 2012, sometimes dismantling up to 20 during a single patrol.
The mangrove forest and the turtle population might be faring better, though there is no official data available, but this enforcement has caused local resentment. Communities inside and outside the park are poor, and the majority lack salaried jobs, living off their wits day today.
Accurate statistics are hard to come by in Congo, but in recent years separate reports by the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank have put the country’s unemployment rate among the economically active population at 43 percent and 73 percent respectively. The dearth of available work and the rising cost of basic goods feature prominently in most conversations on the Congolese coast. The application of rules, which used to exist only notionally, has made hard lives that much trickier.
Raymond Baloza is the aging head of the ramshackle wooden school in Kimwabi, an island in the mangroves where the houses are built atop millions of discarded oyster shells. He pointedly observes that the village was here long before the park.
“Everything seems to be OK,” he says. “But coexistence has some difficulties.” According to Baloza, “all the activities our population used to do—making charcoal, hunting for monkeys—are forbidden, so it’s difficult for the people to pay the schools fees. It’s hard to live.”
Bernard Makiese lives in Kilometre 5, a beachfront village on the main road. He is a Khadafi, the name appropriated from the late Libyan dictator and given by the Congolese to the young men who sell smuggled gasoline. Makiese stores his wares, which have been ferried across the river from Angola, in old bottles of pastis and offloads the cheap imports to the steady stream of cars and motorcycles passing through.
“If you forbid people from doing stuff but don’t replace it, if you don’t provide jobs instead,” Makiese says, “then it’s clear that people will turn to trafficking and crime.”
The trade in goods from Angola such as cement and petroleum products is substantial, and provides a livelihood for many local people. But the legal status of these shipments is hazy. Most operators don’t have a license to import, but the authorities have embraced the commerce.
“You can’t separate the official from the unofficial,” Collet says. “In the law it’s all illegal but they pay all the taxes to the government agencies when it comes into the port.” Collet is especially aggravated by kibubu, a method of smuggling the gasoline hawked by the likes of Makiese. On the Angolan bank, fuel is poured into the bottom of specially adapted boats and driven across the mouth of the river into the mangrove forest at night.
In a secluded spot, the cargo is transferred into 53-gallon jerry cans, typically leaving behind sizable spills to be found by Ngeri Mpayi and his rangers. The enthusiastic acquiescence of the tax collectors and the rumored involvement of the military in the gasoline business means that for Collet, the state can be actively unhelpful, not just unable to help.
Collet acknowledges that the park’s prevailing approach to conservation—“repression, just repression,” as he puts it—can cause frustration among the population. In the last two years, using money provided by the World Bank to a local nongovernmental organization, the park has launched a community program and so far established 20 committees that intend to better educate and include locals in conservation. Collet hopes to eventually set up 60 committees, but as ever in Congo, a scarcity of cash intrudes on the best of intentions.
The park has donated learning materials to the school in Kimwabi and given a generator and 1,600 yards of electric cabling to another village. But, says Collet, “We haven’t created any economic projects because of lack of funds.”
The ICCN boss, Wilungula, recognizes that there are significant problems and limited options.
“The reality of not having compensating solutions is a real problem because conservation limits the access of a population to resources,” he says. “We don’t yet have enough financing to offer the people alternatives.”
Tourists—mostly expatriates and wealthy Congolese who fly down from Kinshasa to spend time in the mangroves and on the beaches—contribute about $25,000 each year, while donations usually bring in an extra $75,000 to $125,000. The park’s finances are considerably healthier than they were before Collet’s arrival, but the coffers are still well short of the $800,000 he needs.
“It’s not very much, it’s nothing at all compared to Virunga,” he says, referring to the world-famous refuge for critically endangered mountain gorillas in eastern Congo. Virunga is one of the five large Congolese national parks that are UNESCO World Heritage sites, a designation that facilitates fundraising from institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank and management contracts with organizations like African Parks.
In an effort to better attract donors and abide by government directives, Collet has formed an NGO called Congo Basin Biodiversity Conservation, or CBBC, which in 2013 signed a private-public partnership with the ICCN to manage the Mangrove Marine Park for 10 years.
Collet hopes that in the future both public bodies and the private sector will eagerly champion the park, but for the time being the latter is his biggest source of capital.
“Funding from private companies is much easier,” says Collet. “They put more trust in the park’s managers, and the big thing for them is results.”
The park’s largest single donor is Perenco, an oil company and—on first inspection—an unnatural bedfellow. The Anglo-French firm has been extracting crude oil, both on and offshore, along Congo’s Atlantic seaboard since 2000 (all outside the park’s borders). Rigs jot the horizon, and hundreds of pumps puncture the land beyond the park, often installed within a stone’s throw of villages and crops. The country’s daily haul of around 25,000 barrels is paltry compared with the industries of nearby Angola, Gabon, and Congo-Brazzaville, but Perenco is Congo’s sole producer.
When oil prices are favorable, it sends hundreds of millions of dollars to the treasury in Kinshasa. The company is the backbone of the economy of Muanda, the area’s main town of nearly 70,000, and employs more than 1,000 people when times are good. Perenco finances schools, hospitals, roads, libraries, and electrification projects, and, in 2012, signed an accord with the ICCN to support the park, which it renewed two years later.
So far, so magnanimous.
However, a report commissioned by Congo’s Senate and completed in 2013 concluded that Perenco’s activities were also having a “disastrous impact” on the environment around Muanda. It claimed that Perenco had in places contaminated the soil and rivers with hydrocarbons, ejected untreated waste water into the ocean, and polluted the air by flaring excess gas and incinerating waste products. The report’s author, Arthur Kaniki Tshamala, a professor at the University of Lubumbashi, wrote that Perenco didn’t cooperate with his researchers and even deployed its own teams to “try to conceal the traces of pollution at different sites.”
A second report compiled by French and Congolese NGOs and released in late 2012 recorded similar findings. Tshamala said in an interview that the company’s relationship with the ICCN is “as if Perenco is buying the right to pollute, instead of putting into practice rules to preserve the environment.”
Perenco refutes the allegations and claims that a subsequent unpublished investigation by the state oil company concluded that they were unfounded.
“Our assistance to the Mangrove Marine Park is a theme we are passionate about,” the company said in a written statement in response to a query, adding that “the richness of the site must be preserved.”
Collet points out that the ICCN has neither the power nor the responsibility to tackle such dilemmas. “All pollution taxes and penalties go to the minister of environment,” he says. In any case, the park is his priority and he sees opportunities for mutual benefit.
“Taking donations from companies which have to clean their image … this is already a principle,” Collet notes. “If this principle—‘you pollute, you pay’—wasn’t now the way of the world, why do we have these carbon credit programs?” Indeed, Collet’s long-term plan is dependent on convincing private companies “to take some responsibility, not just leave it all to the government or NGOs.”
Most of the local population has made a similar bargain with Perenco. Makiese drives a truck for one of the firm’s subcontractors when the company is operating a full quota of workers. “They hold up the economy here,” he says. “Without Perenco, we would all be living in darkness.”
This article originally appeared in an edited form on Mongabay.com. You can read it here.