Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Heart of Darkness: The Sequel


The Heart of Darkness is the title of a short novel written by Joseph Conrad in 1899. The novel was written upon Conrad’s return from an assignment as a riverboat captain in Belgian Congo. The novel is about abuse, greed, and moral corruption to the point of madness. Conrad’s story exemplified the most evil and brutal aspects of imperialism and colonialism. In 2014, this dismal scenario remains unchanged. Slavery, child soldiers, (neo) colonialism, resource-led imperialism and conflicts are wrecking the life of the Congolese people. The recently released investigative documentary Virunga shot in 2013 in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), also known as Congo makes the chaos of the movie Apocalypse Now look bland. As a matter of fact, Apocalypse’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, used The Heart of Darkness as an inspiration for his 1979 film.

Congo is too rich for its own good. The country suffers from the so called “resource curse”, the paradox of plenty. Plunder started early: in the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers and traders discovered the Kingdom of Kongo with its impressive natural wealth. Soon the Europeans embarked on lucrative human trade which, for nearly four centuries, supplied some 4 million slaves to the New World. Chaos ruled until 1885 when colonial law and order was forcefully imposed by the King of Belgium. Through proxies, King Leopold ruthlessly ruled a country the size of Western Europe as his personal farm. The transatlantic slave trade had stopped but slavery became a domestic institution to provide expandable and inexhaustive human labor for the ever increasing pillage of natural resources. Rubber, ivory, exotic wood, and precious minerals had advantageously replaced human cargo.

Independence came in 1960, chaotic and bloody. The tenets of the resource curse, imperialism and greed, were here to stay but under a new guise. Tyranny was home grown and imperialism was led by the western mining industry which enriched the ruling elite and impoverished the masses. The dictator left the scene nearly two decades ago but DRC has not overcome its past trauma. Very much to the contrary, the country is increasingly sliding towards being a failed state, corrupt, violent, lawless and disease-prone. Congo has the dubious privilege of being the cradle of both HIV/AIDs and Ebola.

The resource curse has become a catch phrase for bad governance. The mix of resource abundance and poor governance is a lethal combination in resource-rich Congo. This land of plenty enriches its greedy leaders and armed rebellion, covetous neighbors and the rapacious foreign industry. It causes never-ending conflicts and human suffering. It is very much a Catch 22 situation. Bad governance and conflicts destroy the domestic economic fabric therefore for financial and political survival the government increasingly depends on the growth of resources extraction, legal or illegal. The export-led extraction industry can operate in an offshore mode, unaffected by the surrounding unrest. On the other side, the warlords follow the same strategy. They boost wildcat mining and market its output to finance and prolong ethnic conflicts predominantly in the eastern part of the country. If natural resources were not so plentiful and easily mined, DRC would certainly be more peaceful and developed.



                                 Mineral Occurrences in DRC

Mining revenues are hard to assess as the government’s book keeping is notoriously opaque and sloppy, to the point that millions of dollars often go missing. In 2013, $US 88 million disappeared somewhere between the tax agency and the treasury. In 2012, mining and oil made about twenty percent of the country gross domestic product and ninety five percent of its exports (eitii data[1]). To make matters worse, natural resources, except for diamonds are mostly occurring near Congo’s eastern and south-eastern borders with less than friendly neighbors. In the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide (1994), the fleeing Hutu militias the “génocidaires”, spilled over the border and created havoc on the local communities. Since then, Congo’s eastern part, the state of Kivu has been particularly volatile and lawless. To carry on fighting, the intruders press-ganged child soldiers and took to mining.

           socially responsible coltan

                         Socially Responsible Mining: Kivu Style.

The province of North Kivu is well endowed with gold, tin and coltan (short for columbo-tantalite) a valuable mineral used in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices.. All three are extracted with pick and shovel by wild-cat miners. Coltan is very much in demand. The conflicts are clearly mineral resources-fed. From a tribal-based origin, the armed groups morphed into rag tag gangs similar to the South American drug gangs. They control the mines, market their loot, protect their commercial networks and sell the proceeds in neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda which overnight became exporters of minerals they never produced! To achieve their commercial goals, the warlords commonly resort to forced labor: children are used as mine laborers, women are exploited as sexual slaves and indiscriminately raped.

The most nefarious warlords are wanted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crime against humanity. One is actually on trial in The Hague and two others are in jail in Uganda and Rwanda. The fighting has abated lately, but North Kivu remains a very unsafe region. As long as valuable minerals can be mined with pick and shovel benefitting both the armed groups and the senior leaders of Uganda and Rwanda, these partners in crime will have little incentive to foster peace in the region. In spite of the current precarious peace agreement, conflicts can resume anytime.

Before becoming infamous for the proliferation of criminal armed groups, 25 so far and still counting, North Kivu was renowned for the natural beauty of the lush Albertine Rift Valley, its active volcanoes, lakes with bountiful fish and rich fauna. With a view to preserving this natural wonderland, in 1925, King Albert I of Belgium established the 7800 square kilometers (3000 sq. miles) Virunga National Park, the oldest park in Africa. In 1979, it was the first African park to be granted UNESCO World Heritage site status[2]. The park’s most celebrated denizens are the endangered mountain gorillas. The gorillas, which were only discovered in 1902 have seen their numbers dramatically decline during the past three decades through indiscriminate hunting, poaching, disease, habitat destruction and as collateral victims of the local conflicts. During this troubled period, some areas of the park even fell under the control of militias who organized game tours for their own financial benefit. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that the population has rebounded to 880 individuals in the Virunga mountain range which also includes the Uganda and Rwanda national parks. Some 480 gorillas live in the Congolese park.


                                                 Baby Gorilla

For the Congolese people Virunga National Park (VNP) is very much a colonial relic of little value. Since very few tourists visit the park, its land could be put to a more productive use[3]. VNR and its rangers survive thanks to meager funding from the government and grants from foreign organizations, including WWF. It is telling that Emmanuel de Mérode, its current administrator nominated by the DRC government is a Belgian prince but not related to the infamous Leopold. He was probably selected because he was perceived as less accessible to bribery. De Mérode has a long list of enemies and on April 15, 2015 he was ambushed by gunmen and nearly killed. He is now back at work. In the past twenty years, 140 park rangers were slain.


                                       Virunga National Park Resident.

With financial support from rich and committed donors, de Mérode plans to make Virunga self-sustaining by developing economic projects able to benefit the local community, as well as to raise its sense of ownership to buy into the park’s long term development. Time is running out as powerful interests want to open the park to oil exploration, activities totally anathema to foreign conservationists but attractive to the destitute locals. For reasons probably too questionable to outline here, the president of DRC is offering contracts to the oil and mining industry like candies. A “buccaneer” British Company, SOCO International, was granted a sizeable exploration claim within the Virunga National Park. It caused a well-publicized uproar in Europe and the United States of America. The actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Netflix joined forces to produce the documentary Virunga which was released in November 2014.[4] This moving and eye-opening nature documentary aims at publicizing the park’s struggle to survive and to shame SOCO. On November 16, 2014 The New York Times took the opportunity to release a two-page long article titled “Oil Dispute Takes a Page from Congo’s Bloody Past”[5]. SOCO seems to have understood the message and indicated that it was pulling out (ethical decision or falling oil price?).

The DRC government might have wanted to emulate Uganda which has let Total, the French oil company explore in the Murchinson Park. In this blogger’s opinion, the government broke its own rules and underestimated the unparalleled prestige of Virunga; in addition it made two business blunders. Instead of choosing a British firm, it should have selected a Chinese company as less sensitive to western opprobrium (it still can do that!). The central government’s control over the area seems nominal at best. If oil were to be found, it would certainly benefit the scattered armed groups further energizing their warring power. For its part, faced with adversaries like the British Prince William and his friend the former soccer star David Beckham, SOCO might have overestimated its business clout. Its partner, Total has indicated that it will not operate in Virunga. Security of tenure is a flexibly respected concept in corrupt DRC. The president may have to step down in 2016 as required by the constitution. In a country with a reputation of denouncing contracts signed by past governments, it is not a very secure situation for any company.

                 murchison falls

                                         Drilling in the Park 

        Uganda Murchinson National Park: Oil Development Stakeholder

This blogger’s recommendations:  The president of SOCO should be advised to read or re-read Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. David Beckham should invite an African soccer player to join him to defend the pristine beauty of the Virunga National Park and its residents.

PS: All pics were “snitched” from the web.


[1] Extractive Industries Transparency International Initiative.


[3] Even the iconic Yellowstone National Park in the USA has its detractors. They think that tapping its geothermal energy will be a more lucrative undertaking than tourism!