(CNN) — Mention DR Congo, Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, and what comes to mind? Probably conflict minerals, proxy wars, the rape capital of the world, or the trigger for the 19th century “Scramble for Africa.”
But beyond the despair, there is another country; a country not like any other country in the world — a country with rich ancient traditions, a colorful cultural energy and creativity, amazing potential and much, much more.
Ask historians or archaeologists — one of the earliest known mathematical objects, the Ishango bone, was not made in Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia or Renaissance Europe but around Congo’s Lake Edward around 18,000 BC.
It is certainly difficult to picture this today: thirty-two years of dictatorship followed by wars, invasions and bad governance reduced Congo from being a potential economic powerhouse to one of the world’s poorest countries.
But little by little, individuals and organizations in and outside Congo are creating glimmers of hope. The future of Congo still looks more exciting than its past and with a bit more push we can tilt the balance and awaken the world to a century, if not centuries, of “Made in Africa.” Below are six reasons why saving the Congo is critical.
Congo’s strategic position in the continent
Congo’s unique geo-strategic position, more than its gold, diamonds and coltan reserves, makes it of interest to anyone with a keen eye for Africa’s future.
Neighboring nine other countries at all four cardinal points, Congo sits right at the crossroads of African democratization and development, as well as the intersection of a series of real and potential security dilemmas.
This means whatever happens in Congo could have an impact across the continent. And a stable and functioning Congo could trigger prosperity and development throughout Africa, and most critically, play a role in assuring security in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the continent.
Helping to make famine in Africa history
Congo’s vast, fertile agricultural land has tremendous potential to make it the breadbasket for the entire African continent. If Congo’s fertile land were used effectively it could lift millions out of extreme poverty in a continent where malnutrition and food insecurity are rife. But this potential has barely been tapped. In spite of climatic conditions favorable for farming and abundant water resources, only a small proportion of Congo’s arable land and pasture lands is under cultivation.
Bad governance and decay of the transportation infrastructure — in particular the road networks through which production could be distributed around the country — continue to prove a challenge and the consequences have not been short of a disaster.
The Global Hunger Index lists Congo as the world’s hungriest country in its 2009, 2010 and 2011 reports, and UNICEF says Congo has the highest rate of malnutrition in Central and West Africa, affecting 43% of children under five.
The Congo Basin rainforest, one of the natural wonders of the world, is sometimes described as one of the Earth’s lungs — the other being South America’s Amazon. Home to 10,000 species of plants (of which 3,000 are found nowhere else), it features mesmerizing scenery, restless landscapes, waterfalls, a mosaic of savannahs, swamp forests and some of the most spectacular and endangered wildlife in the world.
The forest plays a crucial role in regulating climate, both locally and globally, but recent industrial logging, resource extraction and proxy wars are threatening this fragile ecosystem.
As things stand, there are 20 million hectares of logging titles in Congo — an area the size of Ghana. For more than half of Congo’s population who rely on the forest for food, medicine, fresh water, shelter and customary tradition, this is humanitarian havoc in slow motion. For the global climate, it could be a catastrophe.
Fishing and tourism
If Congo could be known by a different name, that name, I think, should the country of lakes. Rich in aquatic biodiversity and holding more than half of Africa’s water reserves, including four of the continent’s great lakes, as well as Africa’s longest and deepest freshwater lake — Lake Tanganika — Congo’s lakes and rivers, if coupled with the needed infrastructure to fulfill its potential, could be a breadbasket for the region.
With more than 700 species of fish recorded in the Congo Basin — the world’s second-largest river basin — the potential for commercial fishing in these lakes and rivers is great. However, the ripple of potential does not stop there; tourism is another side of the coin. Congo’s lakes and rivers, along with its rolling lush hills and valleys, could potentially transform Congo into a huge tourist attraction, creating jobs and businesses for the region.
Lighting up Africa, from Cape to Cairo
Electricity is said to be the lifeblood of human society and economic development, but 550 million Africans have no access to electricity. They rely on wood, dung and crop waste for their daily energy needs — and that costs lives. Burning dirty fuels in poorly ventilated homes causes 1.6 million people around the world to die prematurely each year.
Yet, astonishingly, the Congo River has the potential to light up the entire African continent from Cape to Cairo, without further polluting the planet or worsening climate change.
Congo’s unspoiled wildlife diversity is perhaps the country’s most fascinating feature. Whether by 4×4 drives or river tours by pirogue, Congo offers an ideal wildlife destination for nature lovers.
Home to big cats as well as 1,000 bird species, 900 species of butterflies, 400 species of mammals (including more than 80% of African primates), half of the continent’s remaining elephants, 280 species of reptiles, 216 species of amphibians, forest antelopes and forest pigs — with more species being discovered — the Congo Basin is by any measure an essential feature of a healthy planet.
But instability, industrial logging and poaching are threatening the very existence of some of these animals, including some of the country’s most famous residents such as the shy, endangered okapi, the owl-faced monkey, the beautifully patterned bongo, the sliverback gorilla, the bonobo and the dazzling Congo peacock.
Nonetheless, it’s not too late to save these species. And it’s not too late to save the Congo, and help it realize the potential it has always had.
Editor’s note: Vava Tampa, a native of Congo, is the founder of Save the Congo, a London-based campaign to tackle “the impunity, insecurity, institutional failure and the international trade of minerals funding the wars in Democratic Republic of the Congo.”