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A 2-Million-Acre Headache in Zaire

From February 1984 until this past year, Patrick Giantonio walked from Mombassa, Kenya, to Douala, Cameroon, in an effort to learn about Africa's development, health, and environmental issues from Africans. Patrick's efforts are supported by his family, friends, individuals, and organizations throughout the United States and in those countries through which he has walked. He published an article in Cultural Survival Quarterly in 1988 (volume 12, number 2) on the Trans-African Highway.

Since Patrick's first article, the focus of his walk has shifted slightly. Because each culture's inextricable bond with its natural environment dictates that culture's relative wealth or poverty, Patrick decided to delve into a region's environmental health and its subsequent impact on humans. Here he focuses on the human impact of rain forest destruction in the Zaire River basin and on the relationship between the activities of international logging interests and the relative environmental and economic poverty of the villagers and forest dwellers. In his search, Patrick visited a logging concession of 2 million acres bought by the German transnational company, Danzer Corporation. Danzer operates under the name of Siforzal in Zaire. The name of the concession is Lokuku.

Walking with my Zairian friend Bahati along the Zaire river, we arrived at one of the few major crossroads of our westward journey through Zaire. My intuition sent up a question mark as our eyes followed the wide, straight road north as far as we could see. The cleavage that cut a perpendicular swath into the northern horizon was in sharp contrast to the thick canopy of surrounding rain forest.

"Patrick, if the European logging camp is there, shouldn't we follow this road?" said Bahati.

Striking off again to the west, along the river, I said, "I will return another day."

A week later, Bahati and I found ourselves speeding across the Lindi River in a sleek, motorized canoe that had been fashioned from a medium-sized forest giant. Bahati was escorting me across the river to visit one of the largest logging operations in Africa. Our present host, a Zairian director of a coffee company field office, had provided me with a letter of introduction to the French director of the logging concession Lokuku.

After dropping me on the east bank of the river, I watched Bahati as the piroque raced back to the far bank. His grand smile, which seemed to illuminate the waters between us, acknowledged our bond of spirit. As I waved back, I hoped nothing would interrupt our vow to meet at this same place in one week's time.

At the end of a long day and a very rough truck ride, I had arrived at the gate of Lokuku - the concession of Danzer Corp., one of the largest logging companies in the world. Lokuku is presently exporting 120, 000 square meters of timber per year. One other Danzer concession in Zaire exports 125,000 square meters per year. These combined concessions export more than half of the 400,000 square meters of Zaire's annual timber exports.

How to Destroy a Forest

After being greeted at the gate, I was taken to see the "Chef du Chantier," the French director of the operation, whose name was Daniel. He welcomed me into his stark, geometric office shack. As we walked into a room that was papered in maps and charts, I reflected on the incongruous nature of a shantylike shack such as this nestled in the forest clearing. Part of its oddness lay in the straight lines and shiny metal roof that contrasted so sharply with the forest's soft, rich hues of green.

I told Daniel of the nature of my walking journey, explaining that my great love for the forest had urged me to witness his operations. This arboreal adoration was to be our link for relating to one another during my stay. Strangely enough, Daniel did have an appreciation for the forest. Unfortunately, this sentiment was founded in the Western world's conquest paradigm, rather than from a fundamental respect and humility toward the natural world.

Excited to share his work, Daniel led me into a room with more charts and graphs that illustrated the process used for extracting logs from the forest. He explained that Lokuku was planning to exploit this 2-million-acre section of forest over a period of 40 years. Another employee mentioned that this rate of extraction could be halved if Lokuku wanted to - alluding to mounting international pressure from environmentalists.

This thought sent a child through my spine. I realized how the often well-intentioned efforts of conservation and environmental groups could backfire, causing the destruction of this section of the forest in 15 years rather than in 40 or 50. This reckless timber exploitation seems to indicate the logging industry's interest in liquidating its concessions quickly in order to reinvest in other markets. I began to realize that pressure placed on the logging industry to conform must result from a thorough appraisal of the overall situation, including consulting with the local people. Hopefully, in this way, good intentions will not exacerbate the problem, which in turn accelerates the rate of destruction.

Daniel led me up to the largest chart, which illustrated both the proposed and existing roads in the forest. The roads weaved through an overall grid network that represented the section of the concession presently being logged. From each road that extended into the forest, there was a separate gridwork that represented paths shooting off from the road for a few kilometers in each direction. These were the paths of the timber prospectors, hermitlike employees who spend all their time in the forest walking these grid lines and documenting each tree to be cut.

These prospectors, who receive periodic caches of tinned food from the company, sometimes live this nomadic life with their families. Paradoxically, they sleep each night under the sheltering canopy of the great giants whose fate they were sealing by recording their species name, size, and location on the grid.

After the prospectors have walked their five-kilometer straight grid lines, they are followed by the "ambattiers," or loggers. There are four loggers cutting at one time at Lokuku. Each logger cuts approximately 15 trees per day - a total of 60 trees per day.

Daniel stated that the usable density of this concession was not very good - as low as one tree per 8 acres ( a fairly good density would be two trees per acre). I was astounded that it could be deemed worthwhile to conduct such an operation for such a small number of trees per acre. This astonishment grew as I learned of the monumental task of extraction and the incredible distance that each log traveled to reach its final European destination. The four main species of tree that are being cut are Sipo, Kosipo, Tiama, and Sapelli (Aboudikro). Two other species in less profusion are Iroko (Jaune) and Afrormosia (Assamela).

European consumers' insatiable appetite for these magnificent tropical hardwoods makes possible the eventual gross exportation value of two Siforzal camps at US $40 million per year. This $40 million represents only 7 percent of Danzer's overall international timber exploitation. They do not want to place all their eggs in one basket.

A Dangerous Ecological Imbalance

After dumping my pack in one of the prefabricated houses where the European expatriates dwell, Daniel invited me to ride out to the forest, where he needed to rescue a log-skidding machine that had broken down.

As we left the logging camp, we passed the shantytown that housed the few hundred Zairian workers. On the outskirts of the compact village we passed new settlements that dotted the roadside for many kilometers, from the main camp into the forest. The newly cleared plots and freshly thatched huts were home to cultivators, enticed by the vast areas of forest recently opened by the loggers, who had emigrated from an area of a few hundred kilometers. The cultivators plant their cassava, plantains, and maize and sell them to local markets, as well as ones as far away as Kisangani and Kinshasa. Daniel said that some of the new settlers arrived to plant staples for the new, insular market that the 300 workers at the camp provided. This is yet another spinoff effect of the camp's presence.

As we drove by new farm plots, I could see a clear correlation between the age of the new homesteads and the height and vigor of the plants. In areas where the settlers had obviously arrived within months, the thatch still maintained its fresh sheen and the maize was a healthy nine or ten feet tall. As the houses took on a darker, smoky, more aged appearance, the plants diminished in size. The difference between a homestead that was involved in the first planting and one that was planted for the second or third time was astounding.

The nutrition of most rainforest soils is held directly within the biomass. This means that the vast fecundity of the forests remain such only while nutrients are in cycle with the rest of the environment. Leaves and trees fall and are quickly recycled back into the nutritional flow of the forest.

When the biomass of the soil is reduced by the removal of one of the greatest contributors - the trees - the soil quickly falls into a state of poverty. For this reason most rainforest soils are agriculturally rich for the first year but fall shorter and shorter with each new year and planting season. Because of this, more forest needs to be cleared each year. In the past, this type of "shifting cultivation" was a relatively sound type of agriculture. As populations have increased and new forms of government and corporate interests have forced tribes and villages to become more sedentary, however, this form of agriculture has become increasingly less sustainable. A lack of land tenure and control of land by the elite, a great problem facing other parts of Zaire, was not as much of a driving force behind resettlement at Lokuku. The new settlers are simply taking advantage of both the new roads and the partial clearing of the forest by the logging.

I wondered what new - or old - farming techniques could help keep people on their land. Agroforesty and regenerative agriculture are crucial to helping communities live in a more sustainable and bountiful relationship with their environment. I began to understand how much work is involved in cutting down a rain forest with a machete. People who are dependent on rain forests do not want to annihilate them. My comprehension of these points deepened with experience. At one point, having returned from a conference in the United States on rainforest destruction, I found myself, machete in hand, helping some Zairian friends clear part of the forest for planting.

Daniel shook his head as we passed by the new dwellings. "It is a shame," he said. "You can see the decrease in fertility with each new planting." He remarked on the total destruction that followed in the wake of the new immigrants to the area. This offered the perfect opportunity for me to address the grand question of the sustainability of the logging operation. I asked Daniel if he though that the forest could recover after they had finished exploiting the concession.

In theory the discussion of sustainable logging is an important one, but in practice the issue runs aground in the nonsustainable nature and terminal effect of the building and use of hundreds of miles of roads to extract and ship the logs. These roads invariably open the forest to further exploitation by new settlers.

Each year the Lokuku operation builds another 120 km of roads. For the first few years of the five-year history of this exploitation, it had to concentrate on building a road from the Zaire River, across a great swamp, and inland to the area to be logged. This main road has been the thoroughfare with which the logs begin their long journey; it is also the same route that would transport new settlers to the area.

One Tree's Journey

At one point Daniel and I ventured into the forest on one of the paths left by the "skidders," the large tractors that drag and push the logs from the place where they are cut. Arriving at the stump of one of the great giants, I was spellbound watching two of the huge log skidders wrestle with a log that represented just one-third of the main trunk length of a tree. As I watched one skidder pull and the other push, I envisioned the log resisting the beginning of a very long journey. Sitting on the eight-foot-diameter, blood red stump of the Sipo, I reflected on the many stages and thousands of kilometers that the logs journey.

From the stump, the log is dragged as far as a kilometer through the forest to the loading area. Here the fleet of Mercedes trucks wait to be loaded by the army ant-like tractors with huge pincers. In this area the size of a football field, the clash between humans and nature can be smelled in the air as the forest's sodden, nectarlike atmosphere is replaced by a mixture of diesel fumes, human sweat, and the loamy scent of opened earth. The floor of this area will be turned into either a quagmire or a dust bowl, depending on the season.

We were quickly approaching the rainy season and Daniel was concerned that the rains would soon put a halt to their work. The softened soils from the rains give the forest a few months reprieve as it turns into unwieldy mud, arresting and clogging any human-made vehicle that challenges it.

From the loading area the logs then travel the 90 km past the camp and eventually end up at the grand river Zaire.

Arriving at the river landing, the log and I were greeted by the gruff voice of a figure who seemed to be a despotic memory of Zaire's colonial past. "Put that load over there!" he shouted in French. "And be quick about it - we don't have all day!"

Jean-Marie was standing on the riverbank overseeing the loading of one of the flat, steel barges that would carry the heavier species of trees the 2,000 km downriver to Kinshasa, Zaire's capital.

In the same moment, the huge Caterpillar tractor that was loading logs on a barge slammed its rear into the earth as it mounted the loading ramps. Jean Marie shook his head and mumbled something about the lack of skilled labor.

Jean-Marie flicked a cigarette into the river and extended his hand in a warm greeting. He seemed to be a character lost in time and place, a last remnant of the Belgian colonial legacy in Zaire. This image was affirmed by the antagonistic way in which the other expatriates related to him. No one really seemed to take the man or his angry antics very seriously.

As we talked, two tugboats from Kinshasa pulled up to the wharf. Danzer owns 40 large tugboats used to escort huge flotillas of logs downriver. Each flotilla can move up to 1,500 square meters of timber at one time. The job of a tug captain is one of great stature, although not without its challenges. Occasionally, the floats are besieged by "braconeers," or log poachers. These poachers attack the float with small boats and rifles, then cut several of the logs loose. The logs then drift ashore and are gathered up by the poachers.

The poaching business is kept viable by a combination of the difficult economic situation is Zaire and the relative worth of the logs, which sell on the European market for between US $5,000 and $10,000 apiece.

The Danzer Corporation transports about 12,000 rainforest giants a year from Lokuku. All number one and two grades of log are exported to Europe. The number three grades are reserved for the national market is Zaire.

The last parts of the log's journey from the forest is parts of each of our lives, even if we have never seen a rain forest. This log's journey ends right here in our own community - possibly in our office or living room. What about that wooden picture frame on the wall? Or the stereo cabinet that we just bought? That trim, molding, or veneer at the lumberyard really was too beautiful to resist - or was it?

Unfortunately, we as consumers are also victims in a power struggle between giants. The giants to be confronted are many, larger systems (such as corporations or governments) that reduce the wonders of life to a last for mindless material consumption. Though often difficult to identify through the seductive haze surrounding our market-oriented lives, it is the larger systemic natural of this problem that must be challenged on every level.

Parting Words

Having spent almost a week at Lokuku, it was time to return once again to my journey by foot. After saying farewell to my new Zairian and expatriate friends, I spent a few moments with Daniel.

This wasn't the man who I expected to see at the helm of this monstrous operation. I was hoping that the director would be a complete ogre whose face we mythically envision as one of the directors of destruction. It would have been so much easier to write this analysis of the operation if everyone in control had been a ruthless demon.

Situations are often not as they seem. It is rarely the poacher with the gun in his hand or the logger with the chain saw who is the culprit behind the devastation. If there was not a market in the United States or Europe for ivory or tropical timber, then the destruction of nature's precious ecosystems and the people that depend intimately upon them would not be such a profitable business.

After parting words, I climbed on the truck that would take me back to the Lindi River, Bahati, and the waiting footpath. I felt my friendship with Daniel in conflict with my feelings that his operation was totally unsustainable in nature.

Driving out the gate, I waved to Daniel, and reflected on his basic appreciation of the forest. Was this characteristic truly the root of this destruction? I realized that it is larger international forces that condone and benefit from raping the earth that must be confronted. What would it take for Daniel to become part of the solution? What language would fertilize this seed of sensitivity within him to make him one of this forest's greatest allies?

I questioned whether old man Danzer could ever approach the forest with a newfound respect. There is probably no one response to this problem presented by Siforzal and other unsustainable logging operations. Perhaps if the needs and priorities of the local people were reinforced by pressure from Western consumers and advocacy from various local, national, and international forces, this new perception would be forced to the forefront of Danzer's priorities. Part of the answer lies within the balance of a language and dialogue that penetrates old paradigms but does not compromise the future of the forest and the people that depends on it.

Driving back down he baked, barren road from the camp to the river, we passed another truck full of freshly cut forest giants. My heart wept for the forest, and a few words of Jean-Marie's from the night before came to mind. Slugging down a glass of fine whiskey and cutting a piece of tender European beef, he had stated in a sullen monotone: "Ah yes, the life of the timberman is a rough, rough life."

For more information, contact Patrick's Walk, Box 251, Plainfield, VT 05667. Look for updates about both the Trans-African Highway and logging in Zaire in upcoming Cultural Survival Quarterlies.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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