Congo's Environmental Paradox: Potential and Predation in a Land of Plenty

Congo's Environmental Paradox: Potential and Predation in a Land of Plenty

by Theodore Trefon


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Congo has the natural resources the world needs. Its forests count in the fight against global climate change and its mining sector helps satisfy our addiction to the latest high tech gadgets. Congo’s farmers could feed all of Africa’s population of over a billion people. The Inga hydroelectric site has the potential to light up the entire continent. These realities are redefining the country’s strategic place in a globalized world. Telling a different story about power and nature, Congo’s Environmental Paradox examines the dynamics of this huge country’s forest, mining, land, water, and oil sectors in an integrated way. It connects the dots by emphasizing resource diversity, interlinkages, and the complex nature of these sectors. Congo’s incredible natural wealth has the potential to contribute to development in this troubled central African country—but structural problems, cultural factors, poor governance and predation remain serious challenges. Clearly written, full of environmental facts and analyses, this volume is a must-read for anyone interested in development and the political economy of natural resource management in Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783602438
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 05/15/2016
Series: African Arguments Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Theodore Trefon is a senior researcher at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa and a  lecturer in environmental governance at ERAIFT/University of Kinshasa. He has published a number of articles and books in French and English, including Congo Masquerade and Reinventing Order in the Congo.

Read an Excerpt

Congo's Environmental Paradox

Potential and Predation in a Land of Plenty

By Theodore Trefon

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Theodore Trefon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-246-9



The paradox

This book is about the political economy of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A land of plenty with the resources the world needs, this immense central African territory is a resource paradise for some but a social and environmental nightmare for others. No other country in Africa, and few countries worldwide, have such an impressive concentration and diversity of natural wealth. Congo has more than 1,100 mineral substances and is home to the world's second-largest tropical rainforest. Endowed with abundant arable land and an enviable balance of rain and sunshine, Congo's farmers could feed well over a billion people – while also providing new sources of sustainable biofuels. As the African continent's population is expected to double to 2 billion people by 2050, its land could be increasingly coveted and put under pressure. More than half of Africa's fish and water resources are located in this troubled nation whose hydroelectric potential could light up the entire continent. Blue gold, green gold, real gold ... and Congo has oil, too.

The DRC is a place of paradox that fascinates and disturbs. It is a rich country of poor people. A host of international monitoring sources constantly reminds us that there is real poverty – notwithstanding the countless anecdotes of legendary Congolese joie de vivre. Is the nominally 'Democratic' Republic of the Congo toorich to fail or too rich to rise? Perhaps this country of superlatives is simply too immense to organise. Is it perpetually on the verge of collapse, or, conversely, is its long-overdue rendezvous with prosperity just around the corner? Many development initiatives are launched; few attain their objectives. Despite its potential to be the 'Brazil of Africa', a long history of poor leadership, corruption, external meddling and resource trafficking has contributed to state failure. This in turn has sabotaged the efficient management of natural resource sectors.

International partners have been actively involved in preparing Congo's economic future since Joseph Kabila was parachuted into the presidential palace in January 2001. The World Bank's position – endorsed by other like-minded protagonists such as the United States, Britain, the European Union, Belgium and, increasingly, Germany – is that growth and stability in post-conflict DRC depends on improved – neoliberal – management of the country's outstanding renewable and non-renewable natural resources. Hobbled by unrealistic expectations of the DRC government's capacity to implement good governance policies in its natural resource sectors and overwhelmed by confusing dynamics in a rapidly shifting resource arena, this stance appears to be not entirely wrong. However, it is certainly flawed, because a vicious circle is firmly in place. Poor natural resource management handicaps efforts to rebuild the state, and because the state is weak, it cannot assert authority or sovereignty over its natural capital. This apparently no-win conundrum, which results from internal and external factors, also contributes to the endurance of ongoing security problems in the east. These challenges, which are also part of a long historical process, ostensibly constitute an inescapable environmental Catch-22 situation: there are few clear answers and no consensus on feasible solutions.

As its title indicates, this book is about environmental paradox. And there are many such examples in the Congo today. How is it that a country with abundant water can have so many people who are thirsty? How can so many Congolese literally live in the dark despite huge hydropower capacity? Why is there so much hunger on fertile land? A decade of robust growth driven by the extractive sectors seems to have resulted in little social development. The role of the state is also paradoxical because it is simultaneously perceived as being part of the problem and part of the solution. This book helps clarify these issues.


This state of play could accommodate the view that the DRC is condemned to always be the land of the future. This book, however, takes another stance. Market forces, globalisation, the engagement of emerging economies, the economic activities of resource-dependent ordinary people and elite politics are converging to redefine the use and value of Congo's assets. There are examples of state reform that are redefining the governance of the natural resource sectors. Congo's economy is growing and is increasingly connected to regional economies and global markets. Its natural resources can contribute to development, although what form this may take – and who will benefit – is uncertain.

This book illustrates the changes taking place in Congo's natural resource sectors: change, yes, but not necessarily improvement. The sectors have all evolved significantly over the past few years and will continue to do so in the near future. This relative dynamism results to some extent from developments on the Congolese political and economic landscapes, but far more directly from outside forces. The global demand for oil, minerals and foodstuffs has transformed much of Africa. More commodities are traded today in Mumbai and Shanghai than in New York and London. Western commodities giants such as Glencore, Trafigura and Vitol are forced to design new strategies to compete with Indian and Chinese consortia. Regional agricultural trading centres have sprouted up in Addis Ababa, Lagos, Mombasa and Kigali, providing new opportunities (and risks) for African farming. South Africa is a confirmed player in mineral trading. Climate change mechanisms such as carbon credits were unheard of only a few years ago. Today, their prices are carefully monitored on global financial markets. Megadeals for infrastructure development are in the making. Congo, as elsewhere in Africa, is a vast construction worksite. Although sometimes controversial, hydropower is an international priority. Because of its resources, this vast territory in the heart of Africa will occupy an increasingly significant place in global capitalism through these emerging dynamics and new partnerships. Shifting economic priorities are reshaping Congo's geo-strategic importance. And thanks to a strengthening civil society, ordinary people are aware of these trends.

Congo's Environmental Paradox reframes development perspectives based on these new natural resource dynamics. The chapters and sections on forests, water, farming and artisanal mining show that these resources and activities already sustain tens of millions of Congolese families. Livelihood options and the quest for well-being are often linked to, or dependent on, these resources, which are also the basis for resilient coping strategies. From this perspective, potential is being met, at least in part. Such strategies may not really help people develop, but they certainly help them survive. Resilience here is predicated on a delicate juxtaposition of human needs and expectations, social constraints and opportunities, as well as the resources themselves. This is a process aptly described by Frances Cleaver as natural resource bricolage. Resilience and bricolage are impressive tributes to the will of the people to take charge of their own destinies. However, these forms of agency do not reflect the government's willingness, or its ability, to make sound and just decisions about how to use the country's resources.

While this book is primarily about power over natural resources, it is also about shared responsibilities to manage them – and this has implications for sustainable development. Through radical reforms of the country's management policies and governance practices, Congo's forests, agricultural land and water resources have the potential to be developed sustainably, but oil and minerals cannot – because, in essence, they are not renewable. A long-term vision of husbanding revenues earned from them today, for the benefit of future generations, does not seem to be on the political agenda.

Congo has been experiencing uninterrupted growth of over 5 per cent per annum since 2003 (except for 2009, the year after the major global economic downturn). Driven mainly by mining and oil exports, growth in 2014 was 8.5 per cent and it is expected to be at least as robust in the coming years. This constitutes the longest period of sustained growth since independence in Congo but it is also part of an Africa-wide phenomenon. The introduction of a value added tax in 2012 contributed to government revenues, as did the improvement in tax collection performance. Tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) rose to 21 per cent by the end of 2012, up from 5 per cent in 2000. The World Bank's Doing Business 2015: Going beyond efficiency identified Congo as one of the ten top performers worldwide with respect to improving business regulation – albeit starting with a rather poor general ranking. The Hilton chain recently announced the opening of a DoubleTree hotel in downtown Kinshasa, indicating the presence of a business clientele. Inflation is under control and the value of the Congolese franc is stable (in part because it is pegged to the US dollar). The national budget, ridiculously low in terms of volume, has been increasing steadily year after year. The recently completed road between Kisangani and Bunia in eastern Congo has had visible development repercussions for the region, contributing to Governor Jean Bamanisa Saïdi's popularity. Cassava leaves harvested in the morning in Bandundu feed Kinshasa families that same evening thanks to highway rehabilitation. There are also examples of local communities taking charge of their own development: Nande traders in Butembo combined their efforts to build and maintain the city's airport. Admittedly insufficient, these illustrations are undeniably harbingers of greater change.

The role of the government, led by Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon since April 2012, could also be credited with some of the positive economic and political trends. The longstanding perception that Congolese politicians are incompetent, corrupt and useless may need to be revisited. While evidence of corruption certainly does exist (especially in the lucrative arena of public procurement contracts) it is not entirely naïve to suggest that Matata's technocratic government is not all bad or that Congolese politicians are increasingly pragmatic. Three explanations seem plausible. One, Matata needs to deliver some positive financial management results to keep international donors satisfied so that the flow of foreign aid will continue. Two, opposition politicians are increasingly vocal and powerful, and political competition is on the rise. In addition to criticising the president and secretive elite networks of power, they are also putting pressure on the government. This is part of a shift in the Kinshasa political landscape that seems to indicate a recognition of the need to assimilate the concept of political accountability. Civil society activists and diaspora groups reluctantly concede these points, but stress that efforts at improvement are motivated more by the objectives of incumbency and less by the desire to help ordinary people. Three, a cynical view is that reports of strong economic data are simply invented and do not reflect the real situation. There are most likely elements of truth in each of these interpretations.

The government's efforts probably do play a role, but much of the positive economic data results from a favourable international context. Factors include high levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) and official development assistance (ODA). The DRC is the world's largest recipient of ODA. Generally strong commodity prices, a major debt relief package in 2010, the China factor (investment, imports and lending), improved security in most regions and the implementation of a significantly revised regulatory framework (initiated in 2002) are other elements. These factors are fragile and result more from external influences than from meaningful change in domestic policies. They are also representative of Africa-wide trends, especially that of growth resulting from a resource boom. Other than in mining, there is little industrial investment taking place in the DRC today.

This fragility is indicative of another paradox: growth without development. The contrast is striking. Despite apparently strong macroeconomic data, DRC remains in the second-to-last position in the United Nations' Human Development Index: 186 out of the 187 countries ranked. Benefits accrue to the happy few, specifically Congolese elites, their cronies and multinational companies. Nonetheless, this last opinion needs to be carefully nuanced. First, it would not be surprising if the DRC improved its development rankings in the not-too-distant future. In terms of data gathering, analysis and reporting, development indicators may lag behind those for growth. Second, and more importantly, some economic trickle-down is taking place. It may be premature or inaccurate to identify them as a 'middle class', but new social groups and households with discretionary income are emerging.

Indicators include the construction of comfortable new houses and rental properties (people are increasingly confident about acquiring real estate and exercising their property rights in urban areas so are less fearful of whimsical expropriation), an improved and growing fleet of costly motor vehicles, attendance by Congolese children in private schools, considerable expansion in banking and telecommunications services, a visible increase in expensive consumer items, ongoing attention to fashion, attractive shops and supermarkets, the mushrooming of fancy restaurants, international medical travel, rising expectations for leisure and entertainment – and perhaps less stress at the end of the month to make ends meet thanks to slightly higher salaries that are paid on time.

After years of virtual isolation, mobile technology in the form of smartphones, tablets and laptop computers now connects Congolese amongst themselves and to the outside world, with positive ramifications for political debate, networking and business opportunities. Foreign business communities (mainly Lebanese, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese) contribute to these patterns of consumption and change, but it is undeniably a Congolese – mainly urban – phenomenon. A narrowing of the gap between very rich and dirt poor is certainly not taking place rapidly, nor is it comprehensive, but there are hints that this trend is emerging. While there is no way of determining with any precision if it is driven by the natural resource economies, commerce, international aid, diaspora remittances or corruption money, it would be safe to assume that it is a combination of all of these dynamics.

An integrated perspective

The primary ambition of this book is to present up-to-date data and analysis of Congo's main natural resource sectors. Congo's Environmental Paradox is essentially empirical and argues, sector by sector, that development and state-building initiatives will not take place in the current context of poor governance. Efforts therefore need to be embedded in locally realistic and appropriate natural resource management perspectives, including in the framework of the stalled decentralisation process.

'Growth without development', the 'paradox of plenty', the 'resource curse', the 'poverty trap' and 'Dutch disease' are all relevant analytical concepts, but ones that I have chosen not to address explicitly. Shelves of volumes have already been written on them, some by the world's most influential development specialists. The way in which the chapters are organised – combining a wide range of environmental facts, analysis and governance challenges – can nevertheless be useful to scholars, civil society activists and analysts who may want to dig deeper into how these important concepts apply to the context of Congolese resources.

An abundant volume of literature also exists on state failure, poor governance, regional conflict, the criminalisation and militarisation of the state, unsuccessful democratisation and security problems. These have been the mainstay of political science research on central Africa over the past 20 years. Inevitable references to these issues also appear in the following chapters but they are not the main focus either. Moreover, lengthy analysis that could help account for how and why the Congolese governance context is the way it is would have been somewhat redundant because I have addressed these issues in previous works. Many people interested in contemporary Congo will be able to readily think of books and authors in the disciplines of political science – and perhaps history and anthropology as well. Few, I am sure, would have comparable name recognition in economics or political economy (especially for work in English), in part because economic data collection vanished with the collapse of the formal economy in the 1980s. Related research then came to an end. The political economy analysis presented here can therefore contribute to redressing this research imbalance.


Excerpted from Congo's Environmental Paradox by Theodore Trefon. Copyright © 2016 Theodore Trefon. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Boxes, tables and figures
Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

  1. Introduction: potential in a land of plenty
  2. Forrest of wealth and mystery
  3. Food and agriculture
  4. Water: an uncertain ebb and flow
  5. Oil: plenty for some, nothing for most
  6. Mining: rise, decline and renaissance
  7. Conclusion: uncertainly and predation in a land of plenty

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