Mabelé was tired. His 6,2 frame was soaked in so much sweat that the sleeveless black top he was wearing was completely wet. The huge log that he was sitting on was rugged and hard but it felt like a soft sofa beneath him. He kept yawning every few minutes both hungry and tired.
Even for someone who has lived next to Congo forest for all his life, the last few days had been crazy. Bush meat may make for delicious meals but it only came after lots of sweat and patience. Research shows that 4.5 million tonnes of the wild game are consumed annually by those living in and around Congo forest. Mabelé hunts this wild game, both for his wife’s kitchen and the local market in Kisangani.
Like 35 other million people in DRC, Mabelé depends on the forest for his livelihood. The forest gives him non-timber products that feed him and put money into his pockets.
Despite the daily struggles to feed his five children and their loving mother, he is among the lucky 77 million Congolese who have survived years of a brutal war that has killed about six million people.
Although this civil war is often referred to as Africa’s civil war because of the involvement of other African countries, it is arguably an unending third world war. This vast naturally rich country is a cacophony of competing global interests. Big companies from the west and China seem to fall over themselves as they run to dip their hands into Congo’s pot of seemingly inexhaustible natural resources, many of them tucked away in Congo forest.
Mabelé’s father and grandfather and great grandfather all earned their living from the forest. Like him, they hunted wild game, scaled those giant trees in search of herbs and fruits, chopped down smaller trees to build their houses and generally took a lifetime of refuge in the never-ending, ever-green forest. Some of his forefathers may even have been part of the team that the Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer was talking about when he said that, ‘our officers are heartily sick of the forest but the loyal blacks, a band of 130 followed me once again into the wild, trackless forest, with its hundreds of inconveniences to assist their comrades of the rear column.’
What Stanley found as ‘hundreds of inconveniences’ were ‘hundreds of every day realities’ for the 130 Congolese explorers who were with him. These realities were wrapped in a forest so dense that sunlight rarely reached the ground. The forest’s towering canopy was like a dark, green umbrella that kept away the sun and ushered in the rain.
Almost half of DRC is covered with the forest that bears the country’s name. The forest stretches for 1,070,000 square kilometres. This massive size is bigger than the combined surface area of England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium. Imagine these seven European countries covered with nothing but a dense tropical forest and you will have pictured Congo forest in DRC.
This forest is home to more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, 200 amphibians, 1,117 species of birds and 400 species of fish. This makes DRC the 5th most biodiverse country on earth.
Forest elephants, forest giraffes also known as okapi, mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas (grauer’s gorilla), bonobos, black colobus monkeys, black mangabey, golden-bellied Mangabey, liana trees that can grow as high as 900 metres, teak trees that can grow as high as 50 metres.
This is just a tiny section of the Congo forest’s vast mosaic of biodiversity that is worth infinitely more in its vibrant pristine state than when it is disrupted through money-minting activities like logging. According to research by Bioversity International, the market value of caterpillars harvested from Tali and Sapelii trees over their life spans is 34 and 13 times higher, respectively, than is the revenue that would be accrued from cutting the trees for their timber.
Although Mabelé didn’t participate in this research, his life’s experiences agree with its findings. He has never benefited from the wood that is dead wood that is harvested from Congo forest, but the living trees gift him with rain, herbs, food and a livelihood every single day of his life.