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On the Congo River, Following a Logger’s Dangerous Journey

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Our boat sailed to a sprawling harbor in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we stared in silence at the scene on the shore.

Barefoot men were lifting huge logs on a steep, muddy riverbank. Nearby, crews on dozens of log rafts waited in the tangled weeds for a turn to unload. On the shore, forklifts with logs in their claws swung between a tangle of logs that looked as if they had fallen from the sky.

We got off our boat to understand everything. But after so many days on the water, we felt like we were still bobbing, even when we were standing on solid ground.

I’m a climate reporter for The New York Times, and the Port of Kinshasa marked the end of a seven-day, 500-mile journey in March, along the Congo River and its tributaries, which we reported this month. I was there with photographer Ashley Gilbertson to explore the logging industry and human toll in one of the most important jungles in the world, spanning the Congo Basin. The vast forest and its carbon-capturing capabilities are becoming increasingly important in halting global warming as trees continue to be cut down in the largest jungle, the Amazon. Congolese officials are trying to stem dangerous and often illegal logging practices in the region.

There are few roads and airports in this part of the country. The river is the main transport route and acts as a conveyor belt for logs moving from the forest to the market. Companies sail downriver with log barges to the ports of Kinshasa, but ordinary citizens working alone also float logs by tying them together in a raft, sometimes with nothing more than mosquito netting. They live and sleep on the rafts during dangerous weeks-long journeys downstream that can lead to injury or even death.

To understand the life of these loggers and their haphazard trade, we had to join them on the river. We hired what we were told was the best motorboat in Mbandaka town and hired two captains, both of whom knew the mechanics of the boat and could relieve each other after long shifts. With so few major towns along the river, refueling is complicated: we filled the small area below decks with plastic fuel cans, stocked up on bread and nuts, and left.

As our boat slid toward the rafts, people came aboard to greet us. After introducing ourselves as journalists and asking their permission to board, Ashley jumped onto the rafts, the arches of his bare feet bending against the logs that shifted and twisted in the current. Notoriously uncoordinated, I hung over the side of our boat chatting most of the time, notebook firmly in hand. Most of the people we spoke to wanted the world to know about their plight and told us cutting down trees was a matter of survival. Crew members angrily chased us away, fearing repercussions if they talked about their mission.

On the river we saw the toll of the logging industry: we passed rickety rafts, barely strung together, and met people whose fingers had been crushed or severed as they tried to retrieve broken logs.

The people we encountered were afraid of the violent storms that were sweeping the river, and they were all frustrated about a particularly shallow section where the rafts often got stuck. The sandbanks also brought our speedboat to a halt so many times that we got used to the sound of the hull scraping the riverbed.

Getting stuck so often damaged our power steering so badly that at one point the steering wheel popped off in the captain’s hands. A switch from the midriver to an outboard motor, which Ashley suggested had the power of a leaf blower, helped us move forward. One night, while we were still navigating a dizzying maze of sandbars, our captains did what many other loggers must do when stranded: they called for help to what appeared to be an empty, wooded shore.

A voice answered: It was a fisherman who knew the river well. He swam to our boat, climbed aboard and led us for hours in the pitch darkness to the nearest town.

That town, Bolobo, had no electricity, like any other town we docked at. In another community, Loaka, children were crammed into two classrooms in a riverside schoolhouse built on piles that cut holes in the floor.

Traveling on the river, meeting the raft crews and sleeping in their communities helped us understand that government neglect and lack of jobs are driving ordinary people to take the huge risks associated with cutting these trees. . On the Congo River, this reality was right in our face.

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