Bear Deluxe Article
This is the text of an article I wrote about the bandana project before I left, and which was recently published in the Bear Deluxe, Portland’s environmental arts journal. There’s instructions on how to order a copy on their Facebook page.
When one thinks about the Democratic Republic of Congo, the enormous nation that sits at the heart of the African continent like the hub of a wheel, one tends to accentuate the negative. War. Rape. Epidemics. Ecological devastation. Child soldiers, clutching guns as large as themselves. Child miners, scrabbling in rank pits for the trace elements that power our lifestyles. The colonial regime built with severed hands and the hippo-hide whip. Most would agree that Congo’s grim history of exploitation and brutality has doomed its large population to a life of misery in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.
In the history of European and American relationships with the region, one can find ways to understand how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Material cut from the forests or hacked from the red laterite soils of Congo made the twentieth century possible- all the wars, all the ambitions, all of the coming together and being torn apart. The uranium that vaporized Hiroshima came from a mine in the southeast, which was still being tapped by wildcat coltan miners in 2004 when it collapsed and trapped 30 underground. The cliché about countries with the richest natural wealth having the weakest economic health should be written on Congo’s national flag.
Just what has all of that exploitation brought to Congo? Worse than nothing. It is the preeminent example of a nation where the process of “development” is running in reverse. There are fewer roads now than at any time since the arrival of European slavers. Less telephone and electrical infrastructure now than in the ’60s. Less agriculture and animal husbandry, less education, less forests, less elephants. What there is more of is epidemic disease, war, poaching, and rape. Congo is something like the picture of Dorian Gray: as the world urbanizes and industrializes with the help of Congo’s natural endowment, Congo undergoes a massive process of ruralization; it shrinks and shrivels, and a weedy forest cloaks its ruins.
There is, however, more than just bad news.
Earlier this year I had a conversation, via Skype, with Drs. Terese and John Hart, two eminent biologists who have spent half of every year since 1974 living and working in Congo. The point of the call was for me to establish my bona fides as a real and presumably non-crazy person, who would be joining them in Congo in the fall for three months of volunteering. The Harts have a home in upstate New York, and when the video link resolved itself I could see them sitting beneath a dramatic timbered roof, in a blue glow of reflected light coming in from the snowfields outside. We exchanged pleasantries, and talked briefly about their project, and some of the logistical niceties involved in my participation. Then, Terese said this: “You’re going to love it here. The food is delicious and the music is incredible, it’s just a special and wonderful place.” John nodded, and added: “It’s so beautiful, and the people are so nice, so generous. You will not want to leave. We look forward to meeting you there, in person.”
After we disconnected, I realized that I had never before heard anyone talk about Congo that way. Congo has always been a singularity into which all suffering sinks, a strange attractor for the greed and butchery and debasement that is the universal motor of capitalist economics. Congo is the car crash from which I find it impossible to look away. To hear it spoken of in such glowing terms was surreal. It raised a veil I’m not sure I knew was there.
I had been toying with the idea of pursuing graduate study in visual anthropology last year with a view to acquiring some sort of credential that might permit me entry to interesting situations in interesting locations. I make a lot of environmentally-focussed art, specifically about relationships between species, predator-prey encounters, and the global crisis of biodiversity, and thought I could somehow shoehorn that into a masters in a vaguely related discipline. After souring on the idea and the time and debt it required, I wrote to the Harts (whose blog I’d been following with great attention) and asked them if they wanted a volunteer. They said yes.
After decades of fieldwork in botany and zoology, the Harts and their Congolese colleagues are now working on the establishment of a national park in an area of forest in Maniema and Orientale provinces, near Kindu. They call the area (and their project) “TL2”, after the three rivers that run though the region- the Tshuapa, the Lomami, and the Lualaba. The forest is comparatively unscathed and full of life, even after the last fifteen years of war. It’s south of the Congo river, which means there are no gorillas- instead it’s home to a population of bonobos, the small, famously promiscuous chimpanzees that are one of humans’ closest primate relatives. There are also elephants, hippos, okapi, leopards, pangolin, Congo peacocks, parrots, and several recently discovered an as-yet-unnamed species of monkey, in addition to a glorious panoply of invertebrates. The big point of the park is to encircle and preserve a big chunk of habitat for grievously endangered species, to create a redoubt where the pressure lessens. It’s a difficult prospect, and in all frankness it’s very uncertain whether or not it will succeed- the levels of commercial poaching for the bushmeat trade and for the titanic Chinese and Asian markets for ivory and other forest animal products are currently at their highest level ever. The national armies of Uganda and DR Congo are deeply implicated in recent mass killings of elephants in northeastern Congo, and the industrial scope of poaching efforts indicates that it’s become the purview of international networks of organized crime.
The TL2 project is about pursuing the idea of the park from the ground up, by doing exhaustive outreach to the people of the region to promote the park to them, and get them to sign on and become invested in the project. This prioritization of the investment of rural people, who are the ones who make their living from the forest and who will actually be giving something tangible up, is something of a novelty. It may be the only way to make a park mean anything.
Africa’s very first wildlife preserve was set up in northeast Congo in 1925 by King Albert of Belgium, son of the murderous King Leopold, to preserve the habitat of the mountain gorilla, now known as Virunga Volcanoes National Park. Much other conservation effort has followed in that mold, being decreed by executive fiat while ignoring the presence of people in the area with a relationship to the land. The role of western conservationists in Africa is broadly ranging and controversial, and often ideological in nature. It has, in general, been the story of people from the urbanized, developed West telling rural people of poor countries how to relate to the land. The example of US biologist Dian Fossey is a good one- to some she is a hero, uncompromising in defending the biodiversity of that same park and disdainful of any compromise. To others she’s a dangerous example of post-colonial value imposition, famous for whipping the testicles of poachers with wild nettles. There’s a lot of discussion in conservationist circles about the very value of parks, since most end up simply as lines on a map, infiltrated and exploited by hungry people, opportunist criminals, and extractive industries. Most also fail to encircle zones of critical biodiversity, since so often those are in areas exploitable for agriculture and minerals. A cynic would say that these forests are worth more dead than alive, in in the mathematics of contemporary economics, they would be demonstrably correct. It should also be noted that a rebellion currently underway in Northeast Congo has led to the Congolese national army shelling Virunga Volcanoes National Park. This is a difficult knot to unpick.
My role in the project is to help promote the idea of the Lomami National Park to the people who live in the TL2 region. In addition to the day-to-day activity of a biological nature, (censusing populations of various species, monitoring the activities of poachers) we’ll be describing to locals the bounds of the park and of a zone around it that will serve as a reserve where people can still harvest forest products. In their work with the villages of the area, the Harts had been distributing a color-copied and laminated sheet with photos of the park’s protected species. I thought I could improve on that, and in conversation with friend and activist Amy Harwood, she came up with the idea of a bandana. It was a crucial insight- in a harsh, tropical environment, where paper is ephemeral and fabric an important part of social life, a bandana would go a lot further towards keeping an idea visible in a community. So I made a detailed pen-and-ink illustration of all of the protected species and their names, in French, surrounding the words “Parc National de la Lomami”. I screen-printed that onto about 500 brightly colored bandanas, which I’ll be bringing with me and handing out to people in the villages around the park region. If they work -that is, if they do help to foster a new relationship between people and the land they live on, then we’re thinking about making bolts of fancy pagne cloth with maps of the park and images of protected species to distribute.
In the final analysis it’s the people who will have to do the work of creating and maintaining the park, not the scientists. Perhaps the best help I can provide is useful and beautiful reference materials.
As I was saying goodbye to friends whom I won’t see for three months, the most common sentiment I heard was “Please don’t die”. Every time someone said that to me I thought of the Harts in their snow-lit room, enthusing about the warmth and generosity of their friends and associates, and the glories of the forests. And I think that that is perhaps the most valuable thing one can do as an ally of the people and the life of Congo is to illustrate that every day, millions of Congolese people wake up, nurse their children, make music, drink beer, and sustain each other, and they do not die. It is not simply a pathology.