How Sustainable Development Ravaged the Congo Basin

In the pitch-black darkness, sitting on the forest floor with our bodies so close that we touch, we sing, each voice producing a different yodeled melody to create a densely overlapping harmony. As the hours pass, individual melodies melt into one another, and we begin to lose ourselves in the human and acoustic tapestry we have created. The intensity of the singing builds, its coordination increasingly perfected until the music is so beautiful that the self melts away. Such splendor attracts forest spirits into the camp to join us, the BaYaka believe. As tiny dots of luminescence, they float around us, coming close and then retreating toward the forest, their subtle voices whistling sweet tunes that occasionally slip through the polyphony. Overwhelmed by the beauty we have created together, some call out “Njoor!” (“My word!”), “Bisengo” (“What joy!”) or “To bona!” (“Just like that!”).

In such moments, you feel that you are the forest, your awareness expanding to encompass the trees, the animals and the people around you. Experiencing such expansiveness, as I did during my doctoral research among the BaYaka Pygmies of the Republic of the Congo in the 1990s, is deeply moving and establishes a loving and joyful connection to everything and everyone in the vicinity. During such “spirit play,” an intensely immersive form of theater, the BaYaka feel themselves communing directly with the forest, communicating their care and attention to it and reaffirming a profound relationship of mutual support and love. As my friend Emeka said, “A BaYaka loves the forest as he loves his own body.”

The BaYaka follow strict rules in their hunting and gathering. They harvest wild yams in such a way that they regenerate and multiply, they try to avoid killing pregnant animals, and they consume everything that they take from their environs. Over millennia their actions and those of other Pygmy tribes in the Congo Basin have enhanced the forest’s productivity not just for humans but for all creatures. The BaYaka do not have a word for famine. When I tried one evening to explain to Emeka and others assembled around a fire that there are places where people starve to death, I was met with skepticism and disbelief.

Also in the 1990s, however, international institutions such as the World Bank, working in partnership with national governments and conservation agencies, began to implement sustainable-development models in the Congo Basin. They zoned the rain forest into expansive sections for logging and other activities while setting aside “protected areas” as safe havens for wildlife. In accordance with the belief that nature thrives if left untouched by humans, which originates in 19th-century U.S. policy, regional governments banned Pygmy groups from the wildlife reserves.

Since then, I have watched an abundant forest teeming with elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, wild boars, monkeys and antelope become a degraded woodland as national and international markets suck out forest produce. Central African elephant populations fell by more than 60 percent between 2002 and 2011, and the decline continues. The formerly active, well-fed and lively BaYaka are now often malnourished, depressed and alcoholic casual laborers dwelling on the edges of their former territories, terrorized by so-called eco-guards and subjected to commercial and sexual exploitation by outsiders. They thrived in the Congo Basin for tens of millennia only to succumb within a few decades to industrial civilization’s appetite for natural resources and a colonial approach to securing them—by expelling the natives from their homelands.

Map shows protected areas, logging concessions, logging roads and trophy-hunting areas in the Congo Basin

Credit: Mapping Specialists; Sources: Global Forest Watch (protected areas, logging concessions, logging roads); Survival International (trophy hunting areas); World Wildlife Fund (Messok Dja)

In opposition to such “top-down” conservation, which is often paired with extractive industries and which regularly fails to meet its stated objectives, a “bottom-up” approach to defending forests and wildlife is steadily gaining ground. A 2019 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that indigenous peoples are better at maintaining biodiversity on their land than practically everyone else. Moreover, 80 percent of the planet’s remaining terrestrial biodiversity coincides with the 65 percent of Earth’s surface that is under some form of indigenous or local community management. Recognizing this reality, this new conservation paradigm seeks to empower local communities to resist the commercial forces invading their territories.

The BaYaka themselves helped me in one such endeavor. Called the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) program, it enables local peoples to map their resources and the dangers threatening them and to share their ecological knowledge with outsiders. The tools and methodologies we designed in the Congo Basin are proving useful in diverse parts of the world. The community network in the Prey Lang forest in Cambodia has been so successful in using the latest version of our mapping tool, the Sapelli app, to protect the forest that it won the U.N.’s prestigious Equator Prize in 2015, the Yale International Society for Tropical Foresters Innovation Prize in 2017 and the Energy Globe Award 2019.

An ideal bayaka man

When my wife, Ingrid, our three-year-old son, Nando, and I apprehensively climbed off the dugout onto the sandy bank of the Sangha River in northwestern Congo in 1994, it was Emeka who greeted us with a warm smile. A charismatic man in his 30s, he was one of a group of about 40 Pygmies camped there. Living throughout the Congo Basin—from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west—Pygmy hunter-gatherer bands speak a range of different languages and are believed to number anywhere between 300,000 and a million. All regard themselves as the original inhabitants of the forest; DNA studies indicate that their ancestors have been living in the region for at least 55,000 years.

Despite their superficial differences, those Pygmy groups still living in intact forests share similar approaches for living well in this environment—their igloo-shaped leaf-and-liana huts, the tools they use for hunting or honey collecting, their distinctive singing style for communing with forest spirits. Over the next three years, as Ingrid, Nando and I covered many thousands of kilometers traveling through the forest with Emeka, his wife, Mambula, and many other members of his extended family, we were immersed in their vibrant and egalitarian way of life. Our companions taught us how to live successfully as hunter-gatherers: how to walk and wade across huge marshes; navigate using elephant trails; hunt wild animals; collect fruit, wild tubers, edible leaves and seasonal insects; dam forest streams to trap fish; and play with forest spirits.

Emeka was our guide. He proved to be a strong and courageous hunter; a caring, indulgent and diligent father and husband; an even-tempered mediator and wise counselor; a skilled orator, singer, storyteller and director of impromptu theatrical productions in the camp; and generous to a fault. The BaYaka’s economy is based on the principle that if you see someone with something you want, you simply ask for it. Living in such a demand-sharing economy (as anthropologists call it) is like living in a place where goods are free. Even if you rarely contribute—say, because you are a child or an old person or are mentally or physically challenged—no one ever questions your right to demand a share of whatever is brought into camp. Emeka invariably gave away everything he had.

Pygmy bands across the Congo Basin share similar solutions to living in the forest, including their characteristic “spirit plays” and their leaf-and-liana shelters. At a new campsite in 1997, Ingoyo tiles the roof of her hut with leaves. Credit: Nico Lewis

The BaYaka vociferously reject the idea that the natural world can be owned. “Komba [the creator] made the forest for all creatures to share,” Emeka told me. Once, on an overnight hunting trip, he and I made camp near a group of gorillas. The silverback smelled the smoke from our fire and began roaring and retching to intimidate us. Emeka was furious. Shouting and swearing, he berated the silverback for thinking that the forest belonged to him: it is there to satisfy all creatures’ needs. Another time my friend Tuba pointed to his young son: “Look, he eats the forest foods, and it grows his body strong.” In effect, the BaYaka see themselves as forest transformed into persons—so much a part of it that they can no more imagine selling a portion of it than I can sell my thumb or my foot.

In the same spirit, the BaYaka hold that the forest is abundant so long as everyone respects certain principles. Scarcity or want derives from people not sharing properly and from the social disharmony that follows—not from inadequacies in nature’s ability to provide. A set of rules called ekila ensures plenitude. If a patch of forest becomes unproductive, for example, the BaYaka seal it off so that no one hunts or gathers there; the ban is lifted when the area recovers. Everyone in the camp must get a portion of meat from a hunt and treat the animal’s carcass with respect. The forest cares about its inhabitants and desires to hear delightful sounds emanating from them; sharing song and laughter with it will induce it to be munificent. Thus, the key social institutions of the BaYaka not only ensure abundance but also celebrate and generate joy.

Our time roaming the forest during the 1990s was idyllic. We ate wild foods and moved freely and without fear. We danced and performed spirit plays for days, sometimes weeks. “They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of happiness and free of care,” anthropologist Colin Turnbull had written of the BaMbuti Pygmies of northeastern Congo, almost 1,000 kilometers away, three decades earlier. I feel much the same about the BaYaka.

But trouble was brewing. In 1993 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) had worked with the World Bank to establish the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo. Covering 4,000 square kilometers on the country’s border with the Central African Republic, it was intended to protect elephants, bongo antelopes, chimpanzees and gorillas. Because Pygmies left hardly a trace of their presence, the authorities and scientists from the WCS claimed that the area was uninhabited. When forest patrols came across hunter-gatherers in the reserve, they evicted them. In consequence, BaYaka clans of the Congo became separated from their kin in the Central African Republic and lost access to large areas of forest that they had known intimately for generations.

The park’s borders lay some 150 kilometers north of where I was roaming with Emeka’s band, so we did not directly feel its impact. But we were in the broad “buffer zone,” which included extensive logging concessions around the protected area. So began the end of an abundant and thriving space in which diverse species flourished.

BaYaka elders Ngeshe and Ngwenye wear white clay on their foreheads (1) in December 2019 to mourn a recently deceased sister. Unable to pursue their original forest-based way of life, they live mostly near Indongo, a former logging camp. Keyo (right) and her friend sit close by, on abandoned forestry machinery (2). At a sacred glade in the vicinity, Emeka, now around 60, explains how the BaYaka care for the forest (3). Credit: Nico Lewis

The sapele tree

I remember the first time we came across a logging road, in 1994. My BaYaka companions complained about how hard the surface was underfoot, how hot it was without the shade of the trees and how many flies bothered us. Emeka and I laughed as women scattered deep into the forest as if a buffalo were chasing them when the first logging truck rumbled by. Over time roads came to crisscross the forest, facilitating the extraction of bushmeat, edible plants and other forest goods to supply urban markets.

Of particular interest to logging companies was the magnificent sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum). Waterproof, incredibly strong, resistant to pests and possessing a beautiful, iridescent grain, this hardwood is in great demand on international markets. But the sapele was crucial to the Pygmy way of life. Once, after a 60-kilometer trek, I was moaning about my sore feet. Emeka cut a diamond-shaped slab of bark from a nearby sapele—a layer of its skin just below the bark is a strong analgesic and antibacterial agent. Emeka placed it upside-down on the campfire to heat the oils in the medicinal layer. Then he put it on the ground and told me to rest my feet on it. Relief was immediate and blissful. I often saw BaYaka children with malaria inhaling steam from hot water infused with sapele bark to reduce their fever.

Most crucially, the tallest sapele trees emerge high above the canopy. Just before the rainy season, they attract hordes of butterflies (Imbrasia oyemensis) that lay eggs on the leaves. On hatching, the larvae grow quickly into large, utterly delicious and highly nutritious caterpillars so abundant that they thickly carpet the ground under these trees. Pygmies prize the caterpillars not just for their flavor but also for their timing: the rains disperse animals from water holes, making hunting unpredictable. “Komba sends the caterpillars to feed people when hunting is hard,” Emeka told me as we sat roasting them on skewers over hot embers and savoring their clean, meaty taste.

Although the BaYaka were deeply upset when loggers cut down “caterpillar” trees that they had exploited for generations, their strong sharing ethos made them feel that they could not resist or refuse. “There are plenty of trees in the forest for everyone; we can share some of them,” several said in the early days.

My family and I left the Congo in 1997 at the onset of a civil war, but I continued to visit the region regularly for research purposes. After the conflict ended, in 2000, a cash-strapped new government opened all remaining forest to loggers. They constructed numerous roads, deepening their reach into ever more remote areas. By 2003 annual log production had more than doubled compared with rates in the 1990s, to more than 1.3 million cubic meters, and it was continuing to rise.

Noticing this trend, environmentalists put pressure on logging companies operating in the Congo Basin to follow Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guidelines, which oblige companies to obey national laws, to minimize environmental impacts, to stay away from areas with high conservation value (such as patches with a greater density of chimpanzees), and to respect the rights of workers and forest peoples. The multinational company Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), which was operating in 1.3 million hectares of BaYaka forest out of its base at Pokola, a logging town on the Sangha River, decided to try for FSC certification.

In my estimation, the company was likely to continue felling trees with or without the FSC label—which offered a rare and valuable opportunity to protect the rights and resources of the Pygmies. Having previously researched how to implement the principles of “free, prior and informed consent” when vulnerable peoples face the prospect of development projects in their territories, I became a paid consultant with the Tropical Forest Trust (currently called Earthworm), a nongovernmental organization that CIB had hired to help it address the social issues involved in FSC certification. The trust charged me with setting up a system by which the Pygmies inhabiting CIB’s concessions could determine whether to permit logging in their territories.

When I discussed the social and economic significance of the sapele with CIB’s managers, they worried about coming into conflict with the 10,000 or so BaYaka inhabiting their concessions, which would rule out an FSC certificate. Tense meetings between the BaYaka and logging staff followed, with me serving as mediator, but the cultural divide proved to be insurmountable. The hunter-gatherers were extremely uncomfortable in office buildings: seemingly simple tasks such as opening doors proved daunting to them, let alone more specialized ones such as comprehending agendas and forms. In their camps, however, Emeka and others explained that only the emergent sapele trees (those whose crown emerged above the canopy) reliably hosted the caterpillars. The BaYaka asked that the loggers protect those trees, as well as natural springs, the tombs of their ancestors, sacred groves, medicinal trees and a few other significant resources.

I proposed to CIB’s managers that they support the BaYaka in mapping these sites, and to my relief, they agreed. Ingrid, who worked in public health, had designed a set of icons to help BaYaka healers read medicine labels for use in a mobile pharmacy she had set up with them to treat worms, malaria and other ailments. That gave me an idea. Working with the BaYaka and a private software company called Helveta, which was developing tools for tracing supply chains of scarce materials (in this case, hardwoods), we designed a pictorial interface for the touch screen of a GPS-equipped handheld computer. One of the BaYaka would go to the resource the tribe wanted to save—say, an emergent sapele—and simply touch the “caterpillar” symbol to mark its location.

The tagging helped to cut through the language and culture barriers. When they layered the maps the BaYaka had made over those of sapeles they had marked for felling, the loggers realized that they could still cut down enough trees to turn a profit. Together with the hunter-gatherers and company managers, I developed a set of procedures (such as taking entire families along on mapping trips because BaYaka men and women value different resources) to determine the terms on which the different BaYaka groups would allow loggers into their forest. In 2006 CIB became the first major logging company to achieve an enduring FSC certificate in the Congo Basin, and other companies in this vast region also later used this model as the basis for their efforts to protect Pygmy rights to secure FSC certification.

BaYaka children enjoy a swing crafted out of lianas in 1997. The forest provides all their playthings. Credit: Nico Lewis

Loggers, Poachers, Conservationists

As years passed, I watched these efforts unravel. Overworked company staff began a slow but inexorable process of eroding procedures—bypassing burdensome obligations (taking only a BaYaka man along on a mapping trip, for example) or ignoring technical problems with the equipment. Still, the resources the Pygmies marked were largely protected. Had the hunter-gatherers—or I, as their mediator with the outside world—foreseen a key collateral impact of logging, however, they might have withheld consent.

Previously, if anyone wanted to enter the forest, they had to have Pygmy guides, and if the hunter-gatherers did not approve of them, they would not take them. But the network of logging roads gave commercial poachers—who hunted not for their own consumption but for insatiable domestic and international markets—access to pristine areas without the Pygmies being able to control them. They used the new roads to intensively raid the forest for meat to feed urban consumers. So lucrative was the bushmeat trade that it spawned well-organized poaching networks, often promoted by elite sponsors such as military or police officials. In addition, as logging camps sprang up deep inside the forest, they attracted Bantu villagers from its periphery, who arrived to provide food and other services to the workers. The resulting shantytowns grew to each contain hundreds of settlers, many of whom also began to hunt for bushmeat.

Frustrated conservationists from the WCS, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other organizations responded by employing squads of eco-guards to police wildlife crime, inadvertently creating militias they could not control. Many of the guards began to extract wealth from the forest, sometimes cooperating with the poaching networks, and they beat and tortured the Pygmies if they found them with wild meat, even if it had been legally hunted. After human-rights organizations publicized these abuses in the 2000s, conservation organizations formally distanced themselves from the eco-guards by encouraging local governments to integrate them into their respective forestry ministries. They continued to support the forces financially and logistically, but they could no longer discipline or fire them, reducing accountability.

Around 2010, conservation agencies began to collaborate with logging companies to police poaching in the concessions that bordered protected areas. The loggers audited the eco-guards for numbers of arrests and seizures of contraband (such as bushmeat). Unable to act against the powerful perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade, eco-guards began to attack softer targets: the hunter-gatherers and villagers. Although local people were legally allowed to hunt certain species for subsistence using traditional methods, in practice the eco-guards took possession of any meat as evidence of poaching to justify intimidation, torture and beatings.

Worsening the problem, from 2007 onward China had been building roads and other infrastructure in the Congo in lieu of mining and other rights. Hundreds of Chinese workers arrived for road construction—an influx that coincided with a major increase in elephant poaching. The roads constructed by loggers connected with the national roads built by Chinese contractors to establish an efficient transportation network for ivory and bushmeat.

Wildlife protectors reacted to the accelerated poaching by doubling down on “fortress conservation,” as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, and others describe it. The WCS, the WWF and others expanded the existing national parks by connecting them into cross-border “conservation landscapes” such as the 750,000-hectare Sangha Trinational, which includes the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. Often working with extractive industries, development agencies and conservation organizations continued to conceive of new protected areas in the Congo Basin without the consent of local people. This past March investigators from the U.N. Development Program reported that Baka Pygmies of northwestern Congo were alleging “indiscriminate violence, humiliation and intimidation” by WWF-supervised eco-guards, who were evicting them from within the boundaries of the proposed Messok Dja National Park. “As a result, the Baka’s traditional hunting activities are being criminalized,” the researchers charged.

Fear, Hunger and Alcohol

With almost all of the forest divided into conservation parks and logging concessions, where Pygmies are persecuted for hunting and gathering, the BaYaka can no longer thrive or maintain their forest-based identity. “Oh, it was good, so good! Honey for everyone! Wild yams … more than you can carry!” said Emeka’s disabled older brother, Mongemba, in 2013. “Now it’s all finished, all finished! Now there is just sadness! We have such hunger. Fear, such fear! The boys are frightened to go in the forest.” Maindja, a 45-year-old grandmother, explained: “If we walk in the forest, we are taken by eco-guards. That is why we don’t put our bodies in the forest anymore. Now we just stay in the villages, not the forest camps. And so the wisdom of the ancestors’ ways goes away.”

Afraid to camp in the forest as they used to and compelled by economic necessity, many BaYaka hang around logging camps or farming villages, seeking work as farm hands, odd-jobbers and home help. Most men feel too frightened to go hunting anymore. Because the men’s cultural and social value has historically depended on their bringing meat to feed their families—which they can no longer accomplish—their self-esteem has crashed. Working instead as marginal laborers and often paid only in illegally distilled alcohol, many men have become alcoholics, with all the psychological, social and economic problems the addiction brings. Many BaYaka women suffer from domestic abuse, and those living around logging encampments are often sexually exploited by outsiders.

From the Pygmies’ perspective, their forest has been converted into a collection of floral and faunal assets seized by outsiders to profit in mysterious ways. The logic of sustainable development—meeting the global demand for resources by opening up the forest to extractive industries while offsetting the damage with militarized protected areas—completely escapes them. Loggers justify their continued felling as a form of development, yet its benefits rarely reach forest people. Conservationists point to the harm done to endangered species by logging, roads and market pressures to justify the draconian hunting restrictions imposed on the hunter-gatherers and the abuses by eco-guards. But in the experience of Pygmies, elephants, leopards, gorillas and chimpanzees were common in their forest—and their present-day scarcity stems directly from outsiders’ presence.

They have a point. Fiona Maisels of the University of Stirling in Scotland and her co-workers estimated in 2013 that elephant populations in the Congo Basin have declined to a little more than a third of what they were at the turn of the millennium. The numbers of western lowland gorillas have also decreased sharply. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that roughly five million metric tons of wild animals are being extracted annually from these forests, causing local extinctions. And according to the U.N. Environment Program, 80 percent of the large mammals in many national parks of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which neighbors the Republic of the Congo) had disappeared by 2010.

The disconnect between hunter-gatherers and conservationists ultimately arises from their conflicting philosophies. For the BaYaka, abundance is the natural state of things, and it is ensured by fair sharing among all present. The forest is a sentient being with whom they maintain social relationships of mutual care and support through taboo, ritual, song and dance. The plethora of animals encountered in this region until very recently is testament to the long-term success of this approach to forest management. In contrast, conservationists and development experts represent a global economic system that objectifies nature, encourages its conversion into commodities and allows elites to dominate decisions over resource distribution, resulting in species becoming scarce.

A new paradigm

Around the world, however, a novel conservation paradigm is taking root. Researchers, activists and others from mainstream society are recognizing that local communities are the primary protectors of nature and are seeking to help them. Although the mapping concept that Emeka and others helped me design ultimately could not save the Pygmy way of life, it is proving more successful in less institutionally and technologically challenging places—those with less corruption, more democracy and stronger governance, for example, or with better access to mobile phone networks.

My experiences in the Congo Basin eventually led to the ExCiteS research group at University College London. We have since developed Sapelli, a modifiable smartphone app for collecting information on vital resources, the activities of poachers, and other variables; Geokey, a data-storage system; Community Maps, used to view the data with an appropriate background; and a methodology for co-designing projects with indigenous and other communities based on the concerns and needs that they identify. These tools help local peoples manage resources by collecting data, monitoring changes and challenges, determining how to respond to them and partnering with outsiders to achieve their goals.

Sawn timber and logs stacked (1) for floating down the Sangha River near Pokola, a logging town, in 2019. Elsewhere, a timber-laden truck (2) awaits a ferry to cross the Sangha. The Congo forests export hardwoods around the world. Credit: Nico Lewis

Using these devices, the Ju/’hoan San in Namibia are documenting illegal cattle drives by their non-San neighbors to water holes in their conservancy, which are used by the wild animals they hunt, while also keeping tabs on their populations. In Kenya, the Maasai in the Maasai Mara worry about the increasing scarcity of the wild medicinal plants they use. In an effort to understand what was damaging them, they documented 123 species of medicinal plants, 52 percent of which were healthy and unharmed. It turned out that burgeoning numbers of tourist camps were responsible for much of the damage to the rest. The Maasai are now expanding the project to the Mau Forest Complex. Best of all, a group from the University of Copenhagen worked with the Prey Lang community in Cambodia to stop illegal logging. Communicating via mobile phones, volunteers track illegal loggers, descending on them en masse, photographing and geotagging their activities with Sapelli and confiscating their chain saws. With support from local administrators, they were able to stop all unauthorized logging.

These efforts rest on the reality that many parts of the world are rich in biodiversity because of the communities that have been living in them for hundreds or thousands of years, not in spite of them. Local peoples are also the most ardent defenders of the environment—because they have the most to lose when it is degraded.

When I last visited the Congo, in December 2019, Emeka gave me a message to convey to Scientific American‘s readers: “We are the forest’s guardians. We have always been here, taking care of the forest. Since time began we have killed animals, and they have always been there for us. We kill animals to feed our children. We don’t farm! We don’t fish! But now the eco-guards stop us; they have forbidden us our forest …. We want our children not to have to go far to find animals—just close to where we stay, as it was before, when we cared for the forest. But our world has been spoiled. It’s a big problem. We want to be well. Sort this out, people, so that we can know joy again!”

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