The Congo Basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world spanning about 1.4 million square miles over six countries, is one of the most important tropical forests in the world. It is becoming more important because of the alarming rate of deforestation and tree dieback in the Amazon rainforest due to illegal logging, mining, and land conversion for agriculture.
The sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide is essential in realising the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping global temperature below 2-degree overshoot and averting tipping points and feedback loops that will result in runaway climate change. Forests store over a trillion tons of CO2 and each year, they sequester about 7.6 billion tons of CO2. However, we must be careful not to view forests through a carbon logic where their value is seen only in terms of how much carbon they sequestrate, meaning how much they clean up after our greenhouse gas mess – because they mean way more than that.
The capitalist logic views nature as a commodity to be traded in the market with no intrinsic value of its own rather than use value or the ability to satisfy human requirements. This logic continues to be perpetuated through conceptions of nature as ‘natural ecosystem services’, ‘natural resources’ and mere carbon sinks. It is the logic that reinforces dangerous false solutions to the climate crisis such as carbon trading schemes, carbon offsets, and technotopian geoengineering operations like carbon capture and storage, and cloud seeding inter alia.
These schemes commodify nature by turning the land, the air, trees, and biodiversity into mere commodities to be traded in the market. This is capitalism enclosing the natural commons and perpetuating the obsession with growth, progress, and the domination of the natural world. These false solutions are manifesting in various schemes such as monoculture forests which replace vast diversity with monoculture plantations that serve the timber industry while destroying biodiversity.
We cannot begin to have a meaningful discussion on the importance of trees and forests without confronting the logic that perpetuates commodification and refuses to acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature. Unless we confront this commodifying logic, we may end up perpetuating land grabs for fortress conservation and the continuation of the systemic exclusion and oppression of Indigenous peoples. A truly progressive approach to trees and forests begins with the acknowledgement that nature has intrinsic value to exist and flourish and that nature has rights which should be constitutionally enshrined and recognised in law. This should be the first approach towards building an earth-centred understanding of humanity as a subset of an endless nature.
The Climate Justice Charter Movement in South Africa has written a progressive Rights of Nature Policy which argues for these earth-centred values and calls for transformative approaches to nature such as a bio-regional approach to the natural commons, indigenous tree planting through mixed species, restoration through re-wilding, decolonial convivial conservation and people’s biodiversity registers and protocols.
We must be guided by transformative values in our approach to trees and forests. These values inter alia include climate justice. That means indigenous communities and marginalised communities should not suffer harm in the name of conservation. Corporate philanthropy which promotes ringfenced conservation and the removal of people from their traditional land must be rejected.
Decoloniality is another important value to guide a transformative approach to trees and forests in the context of the climate crisis. By decoloniality, I mean reaffirming indigenous ecological philosophies that respect the rights of nature, the spirituality of the natural world and the interlocked relationship between humans and nature. Decolonial convivial conservation which deals with the politics of conservation, the violence against nature, the violence of extractivism and the false human nature duality, helps in thinking critically as we approach trees and forests. Ultimately, we must see forests and trees beyond the narrow lens of carbon sinks. There is more to forests than sinking carbon as the Congo basin shows.
Importance of the Congo Basin beyond a carbon sink.
Firstly, the Congo basin is essential for regional climate regulation. The dense forest cover retains moisture, promotes cloud formation, and generates a significant amount of rainfall in the region. This rainfall not only sustains the local ecosystem and water availability but also influences weather patterns in the region making agriculture possible. As a tropical rainforest, it produces a stable and predictable climate which creates a buffer against climate shocks and swings between droughts and floods. If the forest is lost, climate extremes of severe and extensive droughts will become frequent, and rain-bombs and floods will worsen in the region. This will result in climate famines and in tens of millions being internally and externally displaced with dire consequences for the unstable economies of the region. Thus, regional climates are essential for ecosystems, the economies of the region and the livelihoods of the people.
Let us also remember that the world’s forest store approximately approximately 861 gigatonnes of carbon, according to the World Resources Institute. The biggest stores for carbon are oceans, soils and forests.
The Basin is crucial as a source of livelihood for communities. Over 75 million people live in and around the Congo Basin, heavily relying on the forest for their livelihoods and subsistence. For example, subsistence agriculture on the margin of the forest benefits from the rich soil, plenty of pollinators, natural feed, and compost that the forest provides. Millions of people also harvest wild fruits, nuts, and vegetables from the Congo Basin. Subsistence fishing communities also rely on the forests which has about 700 species of fish. For many, fish is their only source of protein. Protein is essential in gene expression, cell replication, brain development, and the development of the human immune system. Without this critical protein, several communities will suffer multiple immune conditions which the World Health Organisation has also highlighted as being prevalent in the region.
The basin is a source of medicinal herbs. These plants are essential for fighting pathologies like fevers, analgesics (pain relief), and treating wounds. They are also important for holistic and preventative healthcare for example in providing antiseptic care and treating chronic conditions like hypertension and others. hirty percent of the ingredients that we require to make modern medicines come from forests. Access to medicinal herbs is essential in countries where there is little to no access to adequate allopathic medical care. Critical problems like the lack of infrastructure, availability of medical drugs and the chronic shortage of medical providers compound these issues in the region. Beyond allopathic care, it is essential as a spiritual place. The spiritual attachment that communities have to the forest is beyond the grammatical narrations of writing and Western conceptions of science because the forest is to some of the inhabitants of the basin, the very essence of who they are.
The basin is a Biodiversity hotspot. There are over 10,000 species of plants with high levels of endemism. Over 30 percent are unique to the region. There are 1,000 species of birds recorded in the region with also billions of insects. The region is also famous as a hotspot for primates, including the endangered eastern lowland gorilla and mountain gorilla. Aquatic biodiversity is also plenteous with over 700 species of fish. It is essential to protect this biodiversity and the rights of species to exist, reproduce and flourish in our common home, earth. Protecting biodiversity is not about human enjoyment, eco-tourism, or the aesthetics of a place. It is about intergenerational justice for all species of life, human and non-human.
Looking forward: better protections
The Congo Basin is under serious threat. According to a report by the Amsterdam-based Climate Advisory, deforestation in the Congo Basin accelerated by 5% overall in 2021. Ultimately, more than a quarter of this forest could vanish by 2050 if deforestation, caused mostly by illegal logging, land conversion for industrial agriculture and oil and gas drilling continues unchecked. The region has failed to confront illegal logging despite key legislations in several countries, implementation has lagged. A 2014 Chatham House report found that 87% of logging in the DRC was illegal. The recent announcement by the Ministry of Hydrocarbons in the DRC selling 27 blocks for oil exploration and 3 blocks for gas, is a disaster for the region.
The Congo Basin could become another Niger Delta if nothing is done by progressive forces and all who care about the climate crisis. The region needs to come together beyond state borders through bioregions to manage the Congo basin and benefit from its rich wealth without destroying it. It should not choose the path of extractive-driven growth. To paraphrase the American poet, Robert Frost, two roads diverge before the Congo basin, one of extractive-driven growth, the other of climate justice. It is taking the latter that will make all the difference, not just for the region, but for the entire planet.