The Congo: What’s At Stake

Apr 28th, 2016 | By | Category: Featured

By Suzanne York.

Sister Angelique, who has helped over 2000 displaced women and girls in the DRC [photo credit:]

Sister Angelique, who has helped over 2000 displaced women and girls in the DRC [photo credit:]

Mention the Congo, and it evokes thoughts of Conrad, King Leopold, diamonds, conflict, war, and also incredible biological diversity and culture.

If there is anyplace on the face of the planet that seems to comprise the best and worst of humanity, it might just be the Democratic Republic of Congo. From its dark history of colonization and exploitation to civil war and extreme violence, it is ground zero for our world today. There are many reasons for despair, but also reasons for hope in this country full of natural beauty and a people determined to carve out a brighter future.

A War Against People and Nature

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ranks 176 out of 188 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index. Per capita income is $800, and average life expectancy is 57 years of age. It has a population of 71 million people, of which 46% are under the age of 15. It is one of the world’s fastest growing countries, with a total fertility rate (the average number of children per woman over the course of her lifetime) of 6.6 children per woman.

The DRC has been in a state of civil war for two decades. The violence in the DRC is frightening, especially for women. Congolese women suffer horrific and widespread rates of gender violence, especially in the Eastern Congo. It is a nation in great need of healing its victims of war and gender violence stemming from conflict. The United Nations has called the DRC the center of rape used as a weapon of war. Civilians have been drawn into the battles, which have been driven by a weak government and rich mineral resources frequently found in remote areas.

Nearly seventy armed groups operate in the eastern DRC, and they are often hiding out in protected forests. There is an urgent need to find jobs for armed combatants and to employ young men in sustainable jobs and livelihoods.




Many of the threats to the environment are due to the militias, who exploit resources to fund their endeavors. Poaching and charcoal are the main sources of profit (charcoal is the primary fuel for household cooking). The militias even operate illegal mines. Watch the documentary Virunga for a sense of the deleterious impacts on wildlife and the environment, as well as to people. In many ways Virunga National Park represents the precarious balance between humans and nature and underscores the choices that need to be made – not just by the Congolese, but by the world.

It is not sensationalism to say there is a war taking place in Virunga. It is a violent conflict between people driven to extremes and an environment trying to survive the onslaught of human beings. While local people struggle to meet their most basic needs (for food, water, shelter), there are others making a living by destroying nature. Virunga is a hotbed for poaching, mostly by armed groups, and for a long time there has been an illegal charcoal trade thriving within its borders. In the past decade some 150 wildlife rangers have been killed trying to do their jobs and protect this park. There are approximately 200 mountain gorillas living in the confines of Virunga. Some four million people live in and around the park.

To make matters worse, oil exploration is happening in neighboring Uganda, around Lake Edward near Queen Elizabeth National Park. Some of the oil exploration is taking place on the border with the DRC and Virunga National Park. The park recently fought off a British oil company’s exploration efforts inside its boundaries. Sixty local and international environmental groups have urged Uganda not to license an oil exploration block close to the park, due to the threat that oil drilling poses to its delicate ecosystem. The building of roads would also risk opening the park up to more illegal logging and poaching.

Solutions – Everything is Connected

People, Planet, Profit

Virunga’s leaders and rangers are doing what they can to address the needs of people and to protect the fauna and flora. It is encouraging to see park officials understand that by meeting the needs of the local communities they can better protect nature.


[photo credit:]

[photo credit:]

Chief Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode is spearheading a triple bottom line approach by linking environmental, social, and economic development goals. At least 30 percent of the park’s revenues are invested in community development projects. The park is tapping into vast hydrological sources to bring hydropower to the region and provide local, clean energy. It is investing in industry (such as a soap factory) and providing sustainable livelihoods for the local people via agriculture and sustainable fisheries. Schools and health centers are being built. With its vast biological diversity, the potential for ecotourism is great, and more tourists are discovering what the park has to offer. Ultimately of course, park officials hope to conserve and help wildlife thrive.


Empowering women is key to ensuring a better future for the DRC. Certainly ending the violence against women is critical. In Bukavu, Eve Ensler helped establish the City of Joy, a leadership community for women survivors of violence. Owned and operated by local Congolese, the City of Joy helps women overcome their past trauma through psychotherapy and a training program comprising literacy, economics and sexuality education.

A main part of empowerment is to educate women and their families on voluntary family planning. The DRC government recently allocated US$3.5 million in funding for contraceptives this year. Family planning reduces maternal and infant mortality, reduces rates of unintended pregnancies, enhances educational opportunities for women and girls, improves the well-being of children, and slows population growth. By prioritizing family planning, reproductive health and girls’ education, along with sustainable economic development, the DRC may eventually benefit from a demographic dividend.


[photo credit: Hannah Jane,]


Linking Conservation and Health

A development model known as population, health, and environment (PHE), has much to offer Eastern Congo. The PHE model goes beyond meeting the needs for contraception, reproductive health and general healthcare. It also incorporates conservation and management of the local environment. There are successful PHE examples in neighboring Uganda, Tanzania, and elsewhere in East Africa.

The Ugandan organization Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) has been successful with conservation efforts. They are also helping local Ugandans meet their basic needs such as health care and alternative livelihoods. The organization was founded by Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a wildlife veterinarian who saw first-hand how the transmission of diseases between humans and wildlife threatened the success of conservation programs.

The mission of CTPH is to promote gorilla conservation by enabling people, wildlife and livestock to coexist by improving health care in and around Africa’s protected areas. The organization has successfully integrated family planning within national park communities by focusing on wildlife health and community health. They also empower people through information technology projects.

CTPH runs a PHE program at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a place considered to be a biodiversity hotspot. Bwindi is home to almost half of the world’s 880 critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park is surrounded by poor communities with a high rate of population growth. It is a model that could reap big benefits for the communities in and near Virunga National Park.

One of the main goals of Transition Earth is to advocate for the PHE approach in places such as Eastern Congo. Only when it is truly understood that we have to work on many fronts to protect the environment and empower people with human rights will we achieve lasting and positive change.


The problems in the Congo affect us all. Conflict, instability, weak human rights, inequity and environmental degradation have engulfed the region before and could do so again. The current situation is a reminder that most conservation and development efforts are not effectively meeting the needs of people and nature. If people living in poverty have to choose between survival and conservation, they will choose survival. They shouldn’t have to make that choice.

Global society needs to find the political will to empower people for the sake of nature and the world. Nothing less than the web of life is at stake.

Suzanne York is Project Director of Transition Earth.  

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