BLOGUE D'INVITÉE : Les habitants de la forêt marécageuse tourbeuse du bassin du Congo
20 octobre 2023
On a tributary of the River Congo, there is a row of houses with thatch roofs under fruit and palm trees with dug-out canoes tied to the river bank. Everything in this village comes from the forest – the food, the wood for construction, palm fronds for thatch, the tree trunks that are hollowed out to make canoes, even the vines that tie them to the riverbank.
The villagers who live in the peatlands rainforest of the central Congo Basin are river people. They live on the raised dry riverbanks, surrounded by flooded or swamp forest. They are skillful at navigating the streams, lakes and wide, fast-flowing rivers that carry the black peat water out into the River Congo.
Fishing is the main source of food. Everyone is an expert fisher – they know where to go, what type of net or line to use, and what species to catch depending on the season, the time of day, the depth of the water and the speed of the current. As a researcher staying in the village, people came by in the morning to sell fish from their overnight catch, a tasty offering for a midday meal.
The peatlands forest is a unique ecosystem for fish, as they lay their eggs in the water trapped in the peat. The peat forest is always waterlogged – it is difficult to access on foot except in the dry season. People go there by dugout canoe to collect wood for construction or palm leaves for their thatch, trailing a fishing line from their boat as they go.
The trees growing in peat are adapted to adverse, swampy conditions. Buttress roots arch out of the nutrient-poor peat and provide stability to the trunk. The wood is hard and durable – suitable for the pillars and rafters of houses. Different species are known for their properties: strength, size or termite resistance. The Molenge tree (Danielia pinaertii) is popular in Kinshasa for construction and is logged by the young men in the village using axes, and floated down river for sale in the capital.
I was guided through the forest and told the medicinal properties of plants. The bark of the boala tree (Pentaclethra macrophylla) is used in infusions to treat stomach ache, tooth ache, back ache and sexual impotence. The power to cure illness is directly derived from the power of the forest, and it only works if the spirits of the forest – bilima - are respected. A forest access fee is paid by anyone who wants to use the forest for their own good – whether for research or for medicine. Failure to pay the fee means the medicine does not work. ‘If you pay, the forest opens up. It closes or opens up access,’ one traditional medicine practitioner said.
A tree that characterizes larges areas of peatlands rainforest is Raphia laurentii, a messy looking palm with a cluster of stems all covered in fibres. The palm fronds are expertly cut and braided onto rods cut from the stem and stitched together with thin strips of fibre. There is huge demand for thatch, and buyers come from the provincial capital, paddling upriver overnight, to fill their boat with stacks of thatch for sale back in the city.
The villagers can exploit the Indigenous people, the Balumbe, in the production of thatch. Indigenous peoples face high levels of discrimination in the Congo Basin, and despite living in the forest for centuries before the Bantus arrived, their rights are rarely recognised. Their labour is exploited, their customary rights to the forest are ignored, and they are treated as less than human. In the area I visited, they were selling thatch to villagers, who sold it on for 100% profit. A Balumbe woman said, ‘They double the price … because for the Mongo [the ethnic group of the Bantu villagers], it is their forest.’
Any plan to protect the peatlands forest of the central Congo Basin needs to recognise the centrality of the peatlands for people’s livelihoods, health, safety and wellbeing. It also needs to recognise the different ethnic groups and the discrimination faced by Indigenous peoples in access to their rights to land, to having a voice, to representation in decision-making and access to services.
In my research site, the forest stretched as far as the eye could see. The village leader said, ‘The forest is something that comes from God, it will never end.’ There was a belief that it would continue as it always had been because nature’s capacity for renewal is stronger than man’s potential to cause harm. Another villager elder told me, ‘The trees will never run out.’
Without mechanised logging and without roads, this has held true for centuries – since the beginning of time. It is important to keep it this way.
The people I stayed with in Equateur province, DRC, are river people, and forest people. They are forest experts. They are our allies in the fight to protect the Congo Basin peat forest.
© Cassie Dummett and Joe Langley.
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