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Rainforest Politics in Brazil and Congo

My colleague Dionne Searcey took a trip down the Congo River and revealed the sprawling, haphazard timber industry, much of it illegal, behind the destruction of a rainforest critical to efforts to combat global warming.

The article described issues very similar to those I’ve seen in my reporting in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest: rampant deforestation, a community dependent on an illegal industry, and a history of corrupt leadership.

However, there is one important difference.

While Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has refused to recognize the problem and has actively toned down environmental protection policies, Democratic Republic of Congo President Félix Tshisekedi wants his country to become a climate leader.

Congo and Brazil are home to the two largest rainforests in the world. Their government policies will shape the ability of these forests to remain powerful carbon sinks and shelters to almost half of the species of the world.

I spoke with Dionne to understand the similarities and differences between the two countries.

Manuela: The forests of Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo appear to be facing very similar challenges. But President Jair Bolsonaro responded by turning a blind eye to environmental crime. How does the current leadership in Congo see these problems?

Dionne: The people in power now express their will to protect the country’s resources and travel to global climate conferences and hobble with the likes of President Biden and other Western leaders to raise awareness and resources for protecting their forests. Recently hired Congolese officials a DC lobbyist to push for support for, among other things, climate issues.

When I met President Tshisekedi last year, he said, “We have amazing renewable energy potential, either through our strategic metals or through our rivers,” referring to both mining and hydropower. “Our idea is, how can we make this great resource available to the world, but at the same time make sure it benefits Congolese and Africans first?”

Manuela: This reminds me of the movement Brazil went through in the 1980s after the end of the military dictatorship that ruled the country for decades. Democratic governments began enacting very restrictive laws and assembling strong environmental protection agencies. Was there a similar moment when attitudes in the DRC changed?

Dionne: President Tshisekedi has come to power in a controversial election after decades of corrupt leaders. The US and other Western countries desperately wanted his predecessor, ex-President Joseph Kabila, out of power, so President Tshisekedi has strong US support – and listens to US diplomats pushing a climate agenda. But after spending the early years of his tenure drafting support for his leadership in the country, he has barely had time to advance climate efforts and now faces re-election and political tensions with neighboring Rwanda.

Manuela: Officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo told you that almost everyone involved in the logging was breaking the law in some way, and it’s happening in plain sight. In Brazil, we see that many cities in the Amazon region have illegal land grabs, mining or logging at the core of their economies. What forces play into this reality in the DRC?

Dionne: Many people who live in the forest of Congo are just trying to survive. The forest is usually cut down so they can farm or make charcoal for cooking fires, but industrial and so-called artisanal (or small-scale) logging play a role in forest destruction. In Congo, there are so many forces at play that started generations ago, even going back to colonialism, that it makes it complicated to change broken systems. The country has seen wars and a succession of corrupt leaders who used the country’s rich natural resources as piggy banks. These kinds of structural problems are not easy to resolve. And the collapse of government in general is leading to fiefdoms in far-flung parts of the forest.

Manuela: Many observers believe that the reason why the conservation policy did not survive under the current government in Brazil was that it was not aimed at creating jobs in non-destructive industries. Is the leadership in Congo thinking about this part of the issue?

Dionne: This conversation is the subject of endless academic seminars and government meetings in Congo and around the world. There are a number of organizations that are trying out projects in small areas, but it seems that no one has a solution yet. The World Bank started financing a few years ago a sustainability program in Mai Ndombe province, pay for acacia seedlings that residents can plant on degraded land and use later for charcoal and construction. And logging companies are technically required to set up social projects in the communities where they cut trees. But residents say those deals aren’t always followed.

Manuela: One of the things that strikes me most about the environmental crisis in the Amazon is that much of what is harvested in a destructive way, such as leather and gold, is sold cheaply to wealthier countries, who then make much bigger profits on manufactured products. How do people in the Congo Basin see this imbalance?

Dionne: The people I met in Congo while reporting on natural resources of importance on a global scale – cobalt and trees – have been devastated by this imbalance. Some loggers I met earn $6 a day to market their logs, a dangerous and potentially fatal job. When I covered a series on cobalt, a metal used in batteries for electric vehicles and iPhones, many of the miners who work in appalling conditions didn’t know where the cobalt was going. When I told them, they were heartbroken.

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Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Sarah Graham contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message and answer many!

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