What The Congo's New National Park Teaches Us About Environmental Respect

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When a new national park opens to the public, the usual fanfare involves, at least in the U.S., some form of a ribbon cutting, entry in a public database and legislative protection. When these things happen internally in a country high up in the world’s geopolitical rankings, the development seems to have little to no effect on the general population. In other words, there is no popular side, there is no true involvement of the public: it is a unidirectional trade, with a governmental entity making a decision and enforcing it. 

The reasons for such a disconnect are multiple and varied. For one, the United States is an incredibly developed and urban nation, with as much as 62.7 percent of the population finding their home in urban centers rather than in the countryside. As such, given an incredibly high variety of urban landscapes as well as continuously improving transport infrastructure, land in the United States is easily divisible: when a national park is constituted, it is easy to ascertain just how many residents are affected. Claiming a national park in the United States is conceptually a relatively simple thing. When we transfer over to more complicated realities, however, calling for the establishment of a national park seems to take on very different meanings. 

Just two weeks ago, the Republic of Congo (not to be mistaken with the Democratic Republic of the Congo), opened its newest, and fifth, national park, an achievement that, though standard for a superpower in the United States, acquires allnew relevance in light of its context. The new Ogoouè-Leketi National Park borders Gabon’s Batèkè Plateau Park, to form a “transboundary protected area covering more than 5,500 square kilometers, the equivalent of approximately 2,120 miles. What this means is that the two neighboring parks compose a protected area that extends through the rich environment that divides one nation from the other. The area, in and of itself, is an absolute treasure. According to Mongabay ecological experts, it is an absolutely unique “patchwork of large rolling savannas on sandy hills, interrupted by long strips of dense forests and turquoise-blue river valleys.” As with many of these peculiar, singular landscapes, the area covered by the new national park is home to a list of highly endangered species, many of which are not found anywhere else in the Congo. 

In an effort to preserve and understand this wildlife, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Congo program has been working in the area for over 14 years, in an attempt to determine just how vital the area is to the sustenance of these beautiful, rare, forms of life. Aiding its colleagues, in 2009 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), identified the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), the central chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), the forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus), and several other species of primates as endangered species living in the area. The IUCN, following these discoveries, identified the region as a “priority conservation site for the protection of the critically endangered species”. In layman’s terms, the IUCN marked the Ogouè-Leketi area as one vital to the proliferation and sustenance of these species. 

As we’ve already said, in a nation different from the Republic of Congo, the opening of this national park would have been marked with immediate necessity, the moment any of this research would have come to light. However, in severely underdeveloped nations such as the one at hand, where corruption runs rampant, external players represent a considerably difficult barrier to entry that, in other nations, would be easy to deal with. 

Before the area was declared a national park, in fact, the area had been home to three logging concessions since 2013. Foreign companies, interested primarily in the area’s Okoumè trees (the production process of which is described in the video below), engaged in extensive logging of the forest land and wetlands so fundamental for the area’s lush green. Deforestation in the area became a real problem, and a tough one at that, as foreign companies brought funds and infrastructure to the neighboring communities, promising to cheaply repay them for the lands with roads and technology. Of course, the roads were primarily for the transportation of the products extracted, and yet they were built and still stand as one of the primary modes of transport for the communities of the area. It was difficult, then, to get these logging efforts to vacate the premises, to let nature run its course uninterrupted. “With the support of the Congolese Minister of Forestry Economy,” said Marc Gately, head of the Congo’s Wildlife Conservation Society. “The creation of the park has eliminated logging activity within the protected area boundaries, securing the closed canopy forest that covers roughly a third of the park.”

At this point, having removed the foreign loggers, the difficult issue at hand was once more to upheave the communities of the neighboring villages who use the park for many of their biological and physical sustenance. Its biological importance for them, coupled with the peculiar interaction they previously had with the logging companies presented a real challenge. “In these identified areas which will be integrated into the management plan of the park, rights-holding communities will be able to continue traditional and sustenance-based gathering, fishing, or hunting,” Gately said. Not only that, but the bordering communities were further involved in the process of creating the protected area. Each of the neighboring communities was questioned, heard and understood, such that their needs would be met and respected once the park became a reality. Now that it is, the WCS’ community efforts are far from over, as Gately and his colleagues turn to the leaders of the neighboring communities to understand and derive the best path of action for the park’s management. 

There is much the world can learn from the process that birthed this national park. Aside from the protection of our planet’s diversity, the mannerisms with which the WCS and the IUCN engaged the difficult communal issues at handsets an incredibly high standard for the balance between nature and man. It’s not impossible, given the Republic of Congo’s success, to engage in these conservational efforts without damaging or hurting the quality of life of neighboring humans. Rather, stories like this make saving our planet’s beauty seem all the more appealing and enticing.