BEAUTIFUL HARDWOODS – UGLY CORPORATE ETHICS

While forestry company trucks destroy Congo's dirt roads, Greenpeace International charges that the companies like Danzer/Siforco underpay or avoid Congo taxes entirely through the creation of offshore companies.
While forestry company trucks destroy Congo's dirt roads, Greenpeace International charges that the companies like Danzer/Siforco underpay or avoid Congo taxes entirely through the creation of offshore companies.

From time to time I check recent news of Equateur Province on the web site of Radio Okapi, the national network sponsored by the UN Mission in Congo.  Last month I came across an article reporting on more trouble between the population of a village near Bumba (on the Congo River 30 kms. above Lisala) in Equateur and a forestry company cutting hardwood in its area.  The story of Siforco’s (Societe Forestiere du Congo) actions in Equateur and neighboring Orientale Province got uglier and uglier when I did a search on Siforco on the Okapi site.

Mining companies are not the only multinational corporations acting like bandits in the American “wild west” while extracting the riches of the Congo.   Siforco is the Congolese subsidiary of the Danzer Group, the largest manufacturer of decorative veneer (think expensive  wood finish) in the world. The Swiss-German company’s timber processing plant in Maluku, Congo opened in 1976 and is the largest on the continent of Africa.  Someone with some time and, one can hope, a foundation fellowship , could look into labor relations at that plant.  Based on reports of the company’s relations with the local population in areas where they cut timber, their employee relations at Maluku are not likely to be very good.

 The Danzer-Siforco record since their forestry concessions in Congo were recertified in 2005 is abysmal.  On May 5, 2011 Radio Okapi reported that several villagers were injured and one person killed when Congolese army troops attacked locals intent on shutting down Siforco operations in Yalisika, near Bumba in Equateur Province.  After the company managers refused to discuss charges that they had violated the terms of their forestry agreement , the villagers sought to seize equipment and curtail further cutting of the forest.  The primary complaint is that the company has reneged on its promise to build a school and clinic for the local people.

The same complaint of no school or clinic built was filed in 2008 by the local population in the area of Siforco’s logging near Aketi in Orientale Province.  In their self defense presented to the Provincial Minister of the Environment, the company charged that villagers would not help with the construction of the education and health centers promised.

On the Danzer Group web site three facts stand out in the company’s justification for its lack of follow through on promises made to local populations in the areas of Congo logging operations:

1)    The company web site reports that by the end of 2011 8 schools and five health clinics will have been built by its subsidiary Siforco but it does not indicate where in Congo they were built.

2)    The company’s statement that these projects began “after 2009” is an admission that nothing was done per their 2005 agreeements with local populations until 2010.

3)    Danzer’s excuse for the delay is laughable for a company reporting revenue of  460 million euros (about $700 million) in 2006:  “Unfortunately we were delayed in the implementation of various social projects due to limitations in our capacities to implement social projects accompanied by low levels of cash availability caused by the world economic crisis in 2008 to 2010”

Danzer/Siforco’s record of adhering to their agreements in Congo certainly raises questions about their environmental practices as well as their corporate social responsibility in cutting the hardwood in the Congo basin rainforest. Do we want to entrust the “lungs of the earth” to their stewardship?

 

 

Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo”

 

  “This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion

  in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death

  of Ray Eldred.  Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ

  who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.

  See “A Master Builder on the Congo”, by Andrew F. Hensey,

  published by Fleming H. Revell.

LOnga sanctuary, built by Ray Eldred, is still the center of Longa church life

So wrote the poet Vachel Lindsay in a footnote to his most famous poem “The Congo” . The sermon which inspired the poem was preached in his hometown First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Springfield, IL in October, 1913.  The preacher had been a friend of the Congo missionary Ray Eldred before his pioneering service in helping found the second Disciples mission station in Congo at Longa.  According to Hensey’s book mentioned above, Ray Eldred perished while trying to ford a small tributary of Longa’s Ruki River.

The poem, while a startling reflection of the ignorance about Africa and the racism prevalent in the U.S.  fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, made Lindsay famous and still appeared in most American poetry anthologies in the 1950’s and 60’s and may still

"Witnesses to the Resurrection":on the gravestone of Lillian Byers Eldred, d. 1912, and Ray Eldred, d. 1913, in Longa

appear.  Lindsay’s performances of this poem made him a public figure in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.  He was a wandering minstrel, twittering his verses for all within hearing distance and the Wikipedia article on the controversy of “The Congo” , on Lindsay’s championing of the poet Langston Hughes and other highlights of his fascinating life is a good introduction to him.  See it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vachel_Lindsay

I strongly suggest reading the article on Lindsay’s life before the shock of reading the poem.  Keeping in mind the cultural context and history of the times –early in the 1900’s Springfield was the setting for one of the worst race riots and lynchings in U.S. history-  Lindsay’s claim of promoting the advance of “the Negro” by writing the poem seems more credible.

Read the poem at:

http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/poems/congo.html

New Book on Congo’s Conflicts

A new book on the causes and evolution of the conflicts in eastern Congo has received favorable reviews in leading U.S. publications.  Jason Stearns, a young American who began serving as a relief worker in the area in 2001, has just

Excitement and hopes were high at the 10th Independence Anniversary Parade in Mbandaka on June 30, 1970. What a contrast to the sombre, reflective mood across the nation on the 50th Anniversary last June 30.

published Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost,  wrote in his April 1 review in The New York Times  : “The task facing anyone who tries to tell this whole story is formidable, but Stearns by and large rises to it. He has lived in the country, and has done a raft of interviews with people who witnessed what happened before he got there. Occasionally the chain of names of people and places temporarily swamps the reader, but on the whole his picture is clear, made painfully real by a series of close-up portraits.”

The American Congo-based political scientist who writes the blog “Texas in Africa” also has commented favorably on Stearns’ book:  “As someone who has read the bulk of what’s been published on the conflict over the course of the last fifteen years, I can unequivocally say that this is the most accessible introduction to the country’s multi-layered local conflict, civil war, and international wars out there. In short, if you want to understand the DRC wars, you need to read this book.”

We will have to wait it seems for the book which covers the conflicts of eastern Congo’s effects on the nation as a whole

"Servir: Oui!; Se Servir: Non!" emblazoned the official "pagne" of the Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution during the 10th Anniversary Year

or the book which assesses the post Mobutu state’s attempts to control exploitation of Congo’s resources other than the minerals.  Since the promulgation of the new Law of the Forest early in the current Kabila administration, cutting of the Congo rainforest in Equateur Province has stepped up considerably.  Environmental groups such as Greenpeace International are monitoring the signing of contracts with European timber companies and recently protested the World Bank’s approval of the state’s opening up the rainforest to increased harvesting.

Congo Market Visits

Saturday only the market opens in the village of Ikengo

And now for something completely different I want to focus on the open air market of Africa as the one place where the “winds of change” have had little effect over the last one hundred fifty years.  Those who have traveled in sub Saharan Africa will, I feel certain, find themselves reminded of their market expeditions  in reading the following descriptions of Congolese markets by two leading African explorers of the 19th century:  Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.  Although it is Congolese markets more than one hundred years ago they describe here, the same scene could be discovered today in most countries of the continent.

First is a passage from The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa  from 1865 to His Death.  Livingstone spent several weeks in Nyangwe on the River Lualaba, central eastern Congo, recuperating from his futile wanderings in search of the Nile.  Every day he visited the busy marketplace of the large village.

Saturday at the Ingende Market

 

“All are pleased to tell me the names of the fishes and other things.  Lipidsirens (my note: a breed of chicken) are caught by the neck and lifted out of the pot to show their fatness.  Camwood ground and made into flat cakes for sale…. Are offered and there is quite a roar of voices in the multitude, haggling.  It was pleasant to be among them… vendors of fish run about with pots-herds full of snails or small fishes…each is intensely eager to barter food for relishes, and makes strong assertions as to the goodness or badness of everything; the sweat stands in beads of their faces – cocks crow briskly, even when slung over the shoulder with their heads down, and pigs squeal….They deal fairly, and when differences arise they are easily settled by the men interfering or pointing at me.” 

Whatever the particular African culture’s customs regarding gender roles and relations, it is the women who stand out in every African marketplace.  Livingstone writes of the Nyangwe market women:

“It seems to be a pleasure of life to haggle and joke, and laugh and cheat; many come

Fishermans Wife Negotiating at Ikengo Market

eagerly…..many are beautiful…. All carry very heavy loads of dried cassava and earthen pots which they dispose of very cheaply for palm-oil, fish, salt, pepper, and relishes for their food.  The men appear in gaudy lambas, and carry little save their iron wares, fowls, grass cloth, and pigs.” 

It should be mentioned that Arab slave traders attacked the Nyangwe marketplace while Livingstone resided there, killing over 400 people and leading to the Doctor’s flight to Ujijii where Stanley “found” him just months later in 1871.

Cassava root for sale at Ikengo - and everywhere else in Congo

There can be no doubt that Henry Morton Stanley was a hard, sometimes cruel, man who drove the Africans in his employ with little mercy.  Another aspect of Stanley’s character – his high regard for the innate capacity of the African – is revealed in the following paragraph from his The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State in 1885.  Stanley too clearly  learned something important from visits to Congolese markets:

“In the management of a bargain I should back the Congolese native against Jew or Christian, Parsee or Banyan, in all the round world.  Unthinking men may perhaps say cleverness at barter, and shrewdness in trade, consort not with their unsophisticated condition and degraded customs. Unsophisticated is the last term I should ever apply to an African child or man in connection with the knowledge of how to trade….I have seen a child of eight do more tricks of trade in an hour than the cleverest European trader on the Congo could do in a month…….Therefore when I write of the Congo native, whether he is of the Bakongo, Byyanzi, or Bateke tribes, remember to associate him with an almost inconceivable amount of natural shrewdness, and power of indomitable and untiring chaffer.”

As an eerie conclusion, I quote from Joseph Conrad’s  1900 commentary in The

Clothes Shop at Ingende Market

Heart of Darkness on the prevailing European view of the Congolese. Conrad marveled at “the extraordinary effort of imagination that was necessary to make us take these people for enemies”.   No doubt Conrad too spent some time in Congolese marketplaces during his Congo travels in 1890.

NOTE:  To enlarge the photos, click on them; the photo to the right here might  surprise you.

A Milestone for the Pygmy People

Mr. Bokele, 44 years old, was Admitted by the Equateur Assembly after Three Months of Deliberation

Two weeks ago a Pygmy elementary school teacher was seated as the first member of his ethnic group to become a deputy in Equateur Province’s Assembly in Mbandaka.  Jerome Bokele, 44 years old and a teacher in a Disciples sponsored school in Ingende territory, declared his election and the approval of his seating by the Assembly has become “a great source of pride for his people”.  While the Pygmy population is as much as one fourth of the total population in Equateur Province, they continue to be discriminated against and looked down on by the Bantu majority in the Province.

Ikengo Pygmy Couple Demonstrate Rainforest Mosquito Repellent. Some Equateur Pygmies' height denotes intermarriage with Bantu.

On the occasion of World Women’s Day last month, the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) communications office featured a story on Pygmy women’s status in one Equateur community.  Jean-Tobie Okala wrote: “As part of Bikoro territory, Iboko is one of those places where discrimination against women and girls is coupled with an ethnic bias. “

The MONUSCO journalist further noted, “In this locality of 80,000 dwellers, women of the Pygmy community are regarded as sub-humans by the Bantu, with whom they share the land. A Bantu man will not buy or eat from a Pygmy woman; or a Bantu will not marry a Pygmy, just as a Bantu woman will usually avoid fetching water at the same source as a Pygmy. Sexual violence committed against Pygmy women is almost never reported. “

Very few Pygmy men or women have in the past achieved literacy much less graduated from primary school.  New parliamentarian Mr. Bokele’s story is remarkable.  He described his childhood as more difficult “than anyone can hardly imagine”.  Graduating from Kabasele-Longa secondary school (another Disciples sponsored school) at age 27, he says, “You had to walk 28 kilometers (over 20 miles) both ways each day, to and from school”.

Last summer I was struck by the dramatic increase in the number of Pygmy residents  and their involvement  in village life and in the Disciples farm project (Centre Agro-Pastorale) at Ikengo.  Nearly the entire staff at the farm and several members of the local Disciples parish are of Pygmy origin .  While on a trip with Church leaders to Ingende territory, we met

Ikengo Director Rio BOSALA with 5 of the 6 Pygmy Children whose primary school fees are paid by the farm project's receipts.

with a Pygmy pastor who supervises Bantu catechists in the area of Bokatola and worshipped in two largely Pygmy Disciples churches.  For more on “The Pygmy People” see my July entry in this Blog’s Archive by entering those words in the grey search box in the upper right section of the blog home page.

Rainforest Photo Gallery

 

Forest and Congo River (or part of it!) at Mbandaka

The Equator Province is the greenest swath on the map of the Congo.  The Province does not have the diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and other rare metals of the eastern, central and southern provinces.  It is the poorest and least developed of the Congo’s provinces. It is the Congo’s Mississiippi.

Dense tropical rain forest covers much of the Province.  One flying into Mbandaka for the first time might wonder if anyone lives along the great river pilots follow on their way to Mbandaka, the provincial capital.  Congo’s rain forest of the Equator Province was described unforgettably by Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness after his Congo travels in 1890:

“Going up that river was like travelling back in the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”  (The Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary, Penguin edition, p.59)

After his own travel up the Congo River in 1925, French writer Andre Gide wrote, “I am rereading The Heart of Darkness for the fourth time. It is only after having seen the country that I realize how good it is.” (Travels in the Congo University of California Press, 1962, pp. 292-293)  Forty years into Belgian rule in Congo, Gide was concerned about the effects of deforestation in Equator Province.  “I am inclined to think that this continual deforestation, whether it be systematic and deliberate or accidental, may bring about a complete modification of the rain system.” (p. 58)

The following gallery of photos were taken in the rainforest of Equator Province during my Congo visit last summer.

Fallen tree on the road to Ingende from Mbandaka. A half hour delay only
That's Rev. Eliki BONANGA, Disciples President, greeting a family traveling by pirogue to Mbandaka

Pothos plants grow bigger in Congo! So do papayas!!
Unique rainforest fruits the "metanique" on the right and "safo" on the left
Ikengo children offering a "mondimbi" fruit to the "mondele" white man
Following the baptism in a roadside pool of Ikalenganya parish
Breadfruit tree - the leaves are a favorite image in the cut outs of Henri Matisse
Five of us helped baptise 41 youth on 7/11/10 in Ikalenganya parish
Rainfall averages 85 " a year at Mbandaka; we're used to 14 " in L.A.
Taken on the porch of the Disciples guest house, Mbandaka
"There was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head n the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost inthe depths of the land." Conrad, H of D, p. 22

Protecting the Rainforest

Small village on the banks of the Ruki River between Longa and Ingende

 

The rainforest of the Congo, second largest in the world after the Amazon, faces multiple threats today.  Logging, both legal and illegal, has stepped up considerably in recent years with barges moving the huge timbers down the Congo River to Kinshasa on their way to Europe (see The River’s News posting of 6/24/10).  

 

 

In  a recent blog Congo Disciples Communications Director Nathan Weteto reported a new threat to the rainforest of Equateur Province.  Providing electricity for the city of Mbandaka, which is without  power more than half the time, can’t be a bad idea. Or can it? Read on!  

(from http://natana.tumblr.com)

“The tropical rainforest is currently a world heritage that everyone should protect. 

But now, the province of Equator province in the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently negotiating with Finnish businessmen to exploit the rainforest on a massive scale.    

The project consists of cutting trees to use the wood to provide electricity 24 hours a day for the city of Mbandaka, the capital of Equator Province, a city whose economy cannot take off due to lack of electricity.  Presented as such it is a wonderful and fabulous project, but what is the price?

The plant to be built will consume 1,000 cubic meters of wood per day! This means that trees taken into account and which would produce the wood amounts to how many? And if for one month of electricity it would require 30,000 cubic meters, what will protect the forest?
These mid-sized trees common to the rainforest of the Congo Basin stand in the parcel next to the "Maison des Missionaires" where most Disciples guests reside in Mbandaka.

 

 

Let’s stop this catastrophe if we can.”

 

The Rainforest Foundation of the UK sums up the case for preserving the jungles of the world, that of the Congo Basin being the largest after the Amazon: 

 

“Worldwide, forest destruction generates more greenhouse gas emissions each year than do all the trains, planes and cars on the planet. So if we are to tackle global warming, there is an urgent need to find ways to reduce the 14% or so of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by forest destruction each year, and to keep the remaining forests standing. 

(from www.rainforestfoundationuk.org)

The non profit Greenpeace International opened an office in Kinshasa in 2008 to lead its campaign on behalf of the Congo’s rainforest. For information on the illegal logging taking place in Equateur Province go to:

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/forests/africa/ 

Africa’s Largest Rainforest (Jungle!) Preserve

Rev. MPUTU Clement, Vice President of the Disciples’ Community, recently sent the following message (translated here from the French):

“I am writing from the heart of the equatorial rain forest in the Salonga National Park near Monkoto.  By the grace of God and the miracle of today’s technology I am sending you this message.  We are meeting here for the training of pastors and laypersons of the area.  The schedule for our departure by air remains uncertain and  security in this region is threatened.  Please pray for us.  May God be with you.”

The Salonga National Park in the south of Equateur Province and stretching into two other provinces of the Congo, is the largest rain forest preserve in the world.

A river flows through the Salonga National Park which covers an area of the Congo larger then Belgium.

It is also one of the most isolated and challenging places to get to in the Congo. Although many bonobo, now a celebrity among the primates, roam widely in the Salonga only a few researchers and virtually no tourists have observed this celebrity among the primates in this habitat.

Several parishes of the Disciples Community of the Church of Christ of Congo border the Salonga National Park.  The airport most often used by researchers is at the former mission “post” of Monkoto and the park entrance nearby is on the edge of Ifumo, another Disciples “post”.

Funded by UNESCO which named Salonga a World Heritage Site in Danger in 1999, a French conservation and environmental non profit oversees protection and preservation of the Salonga’s resources.  The non profit’s on site operations director is ENGELEMBA Celestin, former Director of the Disciples’ Ikengo farm project.

On my left is ENGELEMBA Celestin, Former Ikengo Director, with BOSALA Rio, current Director on the right

Shortly before my departure in mid August from Mbandaka, Radio Okakpi reported that Congolese troops had been deployed to the Salonga National Park to curb illegal poaching – of elephants especially.  Rev. MPUTU’s message implies security remains dicey in the area.  In addition to praying for the people in the Park and in villages bordering the Salonga, there is need for prayer and action to preserve the forest habitat throughout the Congo.  More on that in the next post.

PRESCHOOLS OPEN IN CONGO

Graduates and Community at the Nouvelle Cite June 2010 Preschool Graduation

Ecoles Maternelles”, our equivalent of preschool along the Head Start model, have opened in Mbandaka and other urban areas of Congo. In one of the larger Disciples parishes in Mbandaka, the Nouvelle Cite parish, 180 children enrolled last year.

The Mbandaka UNICEF staff member assigned to Education programs told me the preschools were among the strategies intended to foster completion of primary school in the country. With only two in ten children graduating from the six years of primary school in the Equator Province, the lowest rate of any province in the country, special attention is being paid by UNICEF to the results there.

Rev. Michel LIKOMBA, Nouvelle Cite’s head pastor, serves as Counselor to the provincial volunteer committee charged with oversight of the preschools. The provincial committee’s chair, a Catholic priest, is liaison with the Congolese government for the national movement of Ecoles Maternelles.

While UNICEF leads in funding construction and purchase of furnishings for the preschools, the World Food Program, PAN in the French acronym, supplies daily lunch for the children and staff. Parents’ Committees in each school collect the fees, averaging $1 per month plus an enrollment fee, which results in some children dropping out during the year. Two thirds of those enrolled did complete last year’s instruction at Nouvelle Cite, among them children of Mbandaka Pygmy parents whose fees were covered by the Parents’ Committee organized by the Disciples parish. The Congolese government provides virtually no funding for the program.

THE PYGMY PEOPLE

Thursday, July 29, 2010

After tea was served, the second meeting of the Committee for the Advancement of the Pygmy People was convened on my porch at 7:45 one morning this week. Present along with myself were Rio Bosala, Director of the Disciples CAP at Ikengo, and Sandra Ngoy, daughter of the Regional Minister of the Bolenge Region. Pygmy rerpresentatives were a watchman for the Mbandaka power company, a primary school teacher and John Benani, the co founder and now Director of REPEQ, a non profit supported by UNICEF which promotes Pygmy civil rights.

John Benani has emerged as a national spokesperson for Pygmy civil rights and as UNICEF’s primary contact with this minority population which makes up one fourth the population of Equator Province. Our conversations have educated me on the very slight progress of his people from their traditional status as an inferior, even sub human caste, exploited by their Bantu neighbors.

With my encouragment, the Ikengo CAP director Rio has spoken more openly of his history of support and affinity for Pygmy friends. It is becoming more widely accepted now that this minority must be educated and integrated into the Bantu-dominated society for the Equator Province, with the largest pygmy population in Congo, to develop economically.

That statistics for completion of primary school in Equator Province remain abysmal, some say as low as ten per cent of the children finish sixth grade, is due in part to the incapacity of Pygmy parents to pay their children’s school fees. An unfortunate irony of the Mobutu years of corruption and self indulgence is the fact that the policy of free education of Pygmy children ended with the fall of the dictator’s regime. That gesture of support for the minority did little to relieve the exclusion of Pygmies by the Bantu population.

As an example of the traditional segregation of Bantu and Pygmy, it was only recently that an integrated spring water source was established at a large village 30 kms. from Mbandaka. Where two springs had in the past provided water separately for Bantu and for the Pygmy inhabitants of Bongonde, UNICEF funded the cementing and piping of a new source providing clean water for all in the village. One of the participants in our meeting Tuesday morning teaches in the local primary school. He informed me that 721 men and women enrolled last year in the village’s adult school to gain basic reading, writing and math skills.

My curiosity here about the Pygmy population’s motives in settling in greater numbers in the Bantu villages and even cities of Congo comes in part from the reading of the great book by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, The Forest People. As the author’s account of being captivated by the life and culture of the pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in eastern Congo, the book deserves its reputation as one of the most widely read books on Africa. Turnbull’s recordings of Pygmy songs on Folkways Records also enthrall, and in the book he notes that the words of their songs are few but often profound. The following words are sung only after the death of a fellow Pygmy clan member:

“There is darkness all around us; but if darkness is and the darkness is of the forest, then the darkness must be good.”

For a Congo traveler these days, Turnbull’s book provides a fine contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the work of a man who took pains to get to know very well one of the cultures here. Turnbull casts light on the life of the rainforest which for Conrad remained a place of inscrutable mystery and foreboding.