Episode #3: “A Tale of Two Villages”

King Leopold II of Belgium approached Spain and asked about acquiring their colony in the Philippines. His attempt failed due to lack of funds. So, he shifted his ambitions to colonize Africa. Leopold started a holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic organization. He convinced Henry Morton Stanley to undertake a Central African expedition to scam the leaders in the area into letting his holding company operate there. He named his company “The Congo Free State”, becoming the sole owner and self-made autocratic ruler of the Congo.

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People of Congo were forced to gather wild rubber under the rule of Leopold II, King of the Belgians.

At the Berlin conference of 1884, Leopold convinced the other European leaders to legitimize his claim to the Congo, and in 1886, he sent Captain León Roger (of the Belgian Army‘s Carabiniers) to Africa with orders to form the “Force Publique”. He then dispatched other Belgian officers to the Congo to form the nucleus of the officer corp. The rest of the force comprised a mixture of Belgian regular soldiers and mercenaries from other countries, attracted by the prospect of wealth and plunder. With the help of The Force Publique, he used kidnapping, forced labor, murder, and the amputation of limbs to steal the Congo’s ivory and rubber. His atrocities caused the population of the Congo to plummet by the millions. By 1908, news reports of his abuses spread, giving the Belgian government the opportunity they needed to pay 50 million francs to King Leopold II and seize control of his holding company. They renamed it “The Belgian Congo”.

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Joseph Bonkile Engobo, known as Papa Joseph, near the stump of a tree he had tried to save. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Joseph Bonkile Engobo was 84 years old. He calculated the Belgians arrived in his village almost a century ago. The villagers called him Papa Joseph and part of his job as traditional chief of Lokolama was to know their history. He knew the Belgians arrived in 1922 and forced his great-grandfather to help build a road that began in the city of Mbandaka and plunged into the rainforest. He knew how the Belgians used that road to exploit the locals, forcing them into the forest to bleed baskets of raw rubber from the trees, punishing anyone who resisted or failed to meet their quotas.

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In the 1920s, Belgian authorities ordered Lokolama residents to build the road where their village now sits. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Papa Joseph witnessed the timber merchants using that road that cut through his village of Lokolama and the neighboring village of Penzele, bringing chain saws whose buzzing he could hear echoing through the forest. He suspected many of these loggers did not have the correct permits.

“We are the guardians of the forest,” he declared.

One day, Papa Joseph caught a logger named Guy Mampuya cutting down some of Lokolama’s biggest and most valuable trees. Guy insisted he had already paid someone in the neighbouring village for the logging rights. Papa Joseph argued that no one in Lokolama gave the logger permission. During their confrontation, Guy pulled out a gun. Yomi Bonyele was hunting nearby, heard the commotion, and intervened on the old man’s behalf. Papa Joseph said this was the first time something like this had ever happened in Lokolama, and he had a pretty good idea about why it was happening now.

A group of Congolese and British scientists poured over satellite imagery of the Congo Basin that alerted them to the existence of peatlands. After visiting the Republic of Congo, wading through swamps, and checking measurements, their findings produced a paper which they published in the scientific journal “Nature”. This paper outlined how they discovered a vast store of carbon in previously unmapped peatlands that covered a vast area of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Simon Lewis
One co-author of this paper was Steven Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at the University of Leeds and University College London.

Professor Lewis explained:

“Our results confirm the central Congo peatlands to be the world’s largest tropical peatlands complex. We estimate the peatlands cover 16.7 million hectares, an area equivalent to the size of England and Wales combined, which is about 15% bigger than the 14.6 million hectares estimated when this ecosystem was first mapped in 2017.”

In another article from the Guardian, Professor Lewis elaborated by saying:

“We have also found 30 billion tonnes of carbon that nobody knew existed. The peat covers only 4% of the whole Congo basin, but stores the same amount of carbon below ground as that stored above ground in the trees covering the other 96%.

“These peatlands hold nearly 30% of the world’s tropical peat land carbon, that’s about 20 years of the fossil fuel emissions of the United States of America.”

“Peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when they are left intact, and so maintaining large stores of carbon in undisturbed peatlands should be a priority. Our new results show that carbon has been building up in the Congo basin’s peat for nearly 11,000 years.”

“If the Congo Basin peatland complex was to be destroyed, this would release billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.”

“When we overlayed our new map of the peatland on a map of oil concessions, we discovered that the upcoming sale of rights to explore for fossil fuels includes close to 1 million hectares of peat swamp forest. If destroyed by the construction of roads, pipelines and other infrastructure needed to extract the oil, we estimate that up to 6 billion tonnes of CO₂ could be released, equivalent to 14 years’ worth of current UK greenhouse gas emissions.”

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Peat, formed from fragments of ancient branches, leaves, roots and tree trunks, is hidden under dark, filmy water. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Another co-author of the study, Dr Ifo Suspense, from the Université Marien Ngouabi in Brazzaville, had this to say: “The discovery of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands could have a large impact on the climate and conservation policies of the Congo. The maintenance and protection of this peatland complex, alongside protecting our forests, could be Central Africa’s great contribution to the global climate change problem.

“It is of the utmost importance that governments, conservation and scientific communities work with the people of the Cuvette Centrale to improve local livelihoods without compromising the integrity of this globally significant region of Earth.”

The scientists enlisted the help of a local Congolese biology student from Mbandaka named Ovide Emba. Mr. Emba became an important member of the research team, where he measured the depth of the peat, and analyzed the methane and carbon dioxide the peat produced to see whether it was decomposing. He dug out perfect half-cylinders of samples and sent them to the UK for analysis. By writing his university thesis on the subject, Ovide Emba became one of the first scientists to investigate the peatlands of the Congo.

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The peat samples that Ovide Emba extracts and sends to the UK for analysis.
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OVIDE EMBA- A Congolese biology student in Mbandaka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Mr. Emba took the writer Ruth Maclean from the New York Times to visit the peatlands. He brought an entourage that included him, Ruth, Yomi Bonyele(the hunter who saved Papa Joseph from getting shot), and a group of five women from Lokolama who wanted to show the reporter their special fishing technique. It is during this trip that they taught the Times reporter the local word for the peatlands: ENTOKU. They said that ‘Entoku’ meant “the big mud where people go to disappear”. The spirits of their ancestors lived there. They claimed they only heard the term “peatlands” for the first time from Ovide The Biology Student.

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Fishing in a peatland pond. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Ovide Emba taught the villagers about climate change and the consequences of destroying the peatlands. The villagers used to hunt, fish, and collect mushrooms there, but the information he shared with them made the elders instruct the villagers to steer clear of the area. The science student regretted the misunderstanding the discovery created. It discouraged locals from hunting and fishing in the peatlands because they wanted to avoid disturbing it. He knew that hunting and fishing weren’t a threat. The data proved that logging, mining, oil exploration and large-scale development were the real problem.

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Until recently, people from Lokolama frequently went to the peatlands to fish, hunt and collect mushrooms. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
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Mr. Emba set up his gas collection chambers, wading knee-deep in the water. He anchored a plastic tub and used a syringe to extract the gas. The peat beneath his feet comprising plant matter built up over eleven thousand years. As Ovide collected the carbon dioxide and methane, holding a palm tree for support, he asked the hunter if he knew what those gases were. When he said he didn’t know, Ovide Emba volunteered the layperson’s explanation of how leaves fell, went in the water, transformed into mud, and produced gas. He told how plant matter fell into an environment that is so wet that it prevented decay–trapping the carbon inside. Over thousands of years, the plants in this area lived and died, but did not decompose. Instead, the dead moss piled up, the weight of each layer squeezing the layer beneath it into a thick mud called ‘peat’. One species of sphagnum moss, for example, could hold 26 times its weight in water. It took a thousand years for a meter of peat to form, but not long to destroy it.

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Ovide Emba makes excursions into peatlands for his research and sometimes brings back peat samples to the the lab at the Higher Pedagogical Institute of Mbandaka, where he is a student. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

The New York Times reporter who was with them had to admit that even she never knew that peat was such an enormous store of carbon. She acknowledged that in her culture, peat was just something they used to make whiskey, and it was also the place where archaeologists would find dead bodies preserved.

The biggest challenge for Ovide Emba was explaining to the locals the science behind why the peatlands were so important. The history of Belgian colonialism in the Congo made the locals suspicious of the scientists’ motives. Some villagers suspected the scientists were really oil prospectors. So, the project relied on Ovide to be the intermediary between the scientists and the community. He knew the people, the terrain, the language, and the local customs. But he didn’t find it any easier explaining the scientific concepts to the people to whom he spoke. “How does one explain that there are invisible gases trapped in the mud?” he asked himself. But then came his eureka moment.

When Mr. Emba visited the village of Lokolama to extract peat samples, he stayed at the home of a local named Mrs. Therese Bokinga. She took care of him and he even called her his “village mother”. Mrs. Bokinga had a friend who had a unique way of understanding the science behind the carbon stores of the peatland. Her idea was that Entoku (the peatlands) absorbed all the spirits–good and bad. She saw things that were in line with her traditions. Mr. Emba decided he would incorporate this concept into his future explanations. Ovide knew that Mrs. Bokinga, however, didn’t believe him. She suspected that the samples he took were just a cover story; that there might be something more valuable in the peatlands- diamonds.

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Therese Bokinga, with her husband, lives in Lokolama and looks after Mr. Emba, the researcher, when he visits. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Back in Lokolama, Papa Joseph complained to whomever would listen about Guy The Logger pulling a gun on him. The logger admitted to having a gun, but he denied pointing it at Papa Joseph. Following their altercation, instead of the logger getting into trouble, Joseph received a summons to appear before a government official. The summons accused him of uttering a death threat to Guy in response to seeing the gun, and to occupying someone else’s land. Papa Joseph intended to use his education (he was a teacher in a neighbouring village) to mount an appeal to the authorities. He knew the stakes were high. The government accused the people of Lokolama of squatting in their own village. If they lost the case, the government would evict them from their land.

Papa Joseph knew the colonial history of his village and how the Belgians forced them to move Lokolama from its original location in the forest near their hunting and fishing grounds to a spot next to the village of Penzele. The village of Lokolama was the home to a few dozen families who farmed cassava. The swamps were outside his village. He could see the swamps made it difficult to haul out trees surrounding the peatlands. If someone drained those swamps, it would open pathways for loggers and poachers. He could have sold the surrounding trees to earn quick cash, but he and his village agreed to forgo that option because they understood why the trees were important. Papa Joseph interpreted the attention the peatlands received as a sign that Lokolama sat on a valuable resource, and he noticed that the international attention made his neighbors in Penzele jealous.

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Guy Mampuya, a logger from Mbandaka, in Penzele. There are large trees on the peatlands that interest him. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

It was a rainy day in Penzele when Guy the logger met with the village elders under a raffia shelter to discuss what they should do about what they called their “pygmy problem”. He noticed the elders all agreed that their neighbors in Lokolama were getting out of line and needed to be put back in their place. They needed to teach the people of Lokolama that the peatlands belonged to Penzele.

“You can’t grow crops on the peatlands because they’re too soggy,” he thought to himself. “Houses will sink if you try to build on them because the ground is too soft. The stagnant water is a potential breeding ground for malaria-causing mosquitoes. So, what did Penzele want with the peatlands??”

But farming and real estate questions weren’t his primary concern. He had his eye on some large trees in the peatlands he wanted to chop down. But the elders of Penzele told him to hold off until they had enough information to make their final decision. He hoped that once the science researchers lost interest and stopped coming to the area, he could use that window of opportunity to get the permission he needed. Listening to them, he realized each elder had a different interpretation of why the peatlands were important. One of them mentioned something about the leaves. Another said something about diamonds. And one elder felt the word “peatland” was a merely a euphemism for the entire forest. Guy responded with scorn, “Peatlands, peatlands,” he muttered to the New York Times reporter who was with him. “Everyone talks about peatlands, but in reality, no one understands a thing.”

He saw the elders point at a house. There was someone living there who could explain what the peatlands were. But that person was away in the forest. Just on cue, that man emerged from the trees with a straw hat, wet from the rain. He was called “Tout Va Bien”. Someone rose from their chair to give him their seat. Tout Va Bien frowned when he learned the elders still couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of the peatlands, so he gave them his definitive explanation. As he spoke, the elders shifted in their chairs to avoid the rain leaking through the roof of the raffia shelter.

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Joseph Lombo Bokanga, known as Tout Va Bien, is the richest man in Penzele. Trees protect the peatlands. “So if we don’t cut them down,” he asks, “what can we expect from the world in return?” Photography by Nanna Heitmann

“Peat is an ecosystem,” he explained. “It’s a kind of mud. Flowers and leaves fall down and do not decompose for many years. Not all swamp forests are peatlands. It absorbs pollution out of the air and stocks it inside the humidity.”

He didn’t pause for a breath.

“In environmental terms, it traps carbon, and it filters the water that goes to the Congo River. It stabilizes the climate. In economic terms, it has an impact: it produces many animals, fish, and trees. Inside, there are also spirits — that’s where we get our traditional power.”

He hadn’t finished.

“The Congo Basin’s peatlands are the world’s lungs. People say if the world exists, it’s because Congo is breathing. And Congo is breathing from Équateur Province, and especially where you find peatlands, and especially Penzele.”

Tout Va Bien acknowledged that Penzele’s survival depended on the peatland’s protection. He also saw it as his opportunity to attract attention to the poverty in his village.

“If we cut down the trees, the peatlands will let go of their carbon, and it will destroy the world,” he said, pausing long enough for an ominous crack of thunder to ring out across the rainforest. “So if we don’t cut them down, what can we expect from the world in return?”

He argued that people far better off than him, on the other side of the Earth, were asking him to sacrifice to protect the planet. He intended to receive compensation.

“As you can see, we have nothing here that pollutes,” he pointed out, gesturing at the houses of clay, bamboo and thatch, some without doors. He laughed as he pointed at the New York Times reporters observing the meeting. He knew they had flown halfway around the world, using more carbon to get to Penzele than the village had used in a year. “They are the big polluters! They keep polluting and ask us to protect the peatlands,” he thundered. “They must think carefully.”

Tout Va Bien had more to add, counting nations on his fingers. “The British, the French, the Belgians, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans,” he seethed. “They are the polluters. And they are the ones who have to pay.”

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Men gathering around a board game in Lokolama. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
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The chief of Penzele in his doorway. The two towns exist in a delicate balance with each other. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

When Guy the Logger pulled a gun on Papa Joseph, he let a name slip. It was “Joseph Lombo Bokanga” aka Mr. Tout Va Bien, the richest man in the village of Penzele. Papa Joseph knew that Tout Va Bien lived in a walled compound with his own cassava field and he received the nickname “Tout Va Bien” (Everything is going well) because he was so wealthy it appeared everything went his way.

Papa Joseph knew the villages of Penzele and Lokolama had history. Both of their villages were in an area called “La Cuvette Centrale.” He knew the people of Penzele were predominately Bantu, while Papa Joseph and the people in Lokolama were mostly Bachua pygmies. The people of Penzele often treated them with contempt. In the past, Penzele villagers forced Papa Joseph’s people to work in their fields. He knew, however, that gone were the days of forced labor- sometimes people in Penzele would marry someone from Lokolama, but he still noticed that children from his village were not welcome at the school at Penzele. They had to attend a less-equipped school in Lokolama. To the untrained eye, both communities looked like they were in the same village, but Papa Joseph could see how the discovery of the peatlands upset the delicate balance between Lokolama and Penzele, widening the invisible social gap between the two communities. He received intel from someone who overheard Mr. Tout Va Bien at a meeting bragging about a map he had that proved that Penzele and not Lokolama owned the peatlands.

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A map showing the villages of Lokolama and Penzele in the province of Cuvette Centrale.

Papa Joseph knew that prior to 2016, the Congolese state owned the forest surrounding the two villages and that the government changed the law to allow the communities to apply for land titles so that they could own the land on which they’ve lived for generations. They could apply for titles of up to 200 square miles each. One of the first steps in this process was for Papa Joseph and the villagers to draw up maps to submit their claims. The government wouldn’t help them with this step, so they needed expert help. Greenpeace offered help, commissioning a local environmental group to create the map for Lokolama. The World Wildlife Fund drew up the map for Penzele. It wasn’t until Tout Va Bien heard delegations were visiting Lokolama to talk about the value of the peatlands that he claimed the maps clashed, arguing that the Penzele map proved his village was the rightful owner of the peatlands. Papa Joseph blamed the World Wildlife Fund for not consulting Lokolama when they drew up Penzele’s map.

Papa Joseph rode on the back of a motorbike to the city of Mbandaka. He wanted to complain about the time Guy the logger pulled a gun on him and to inquire if the logger even had the proper permits to cut down the trees in Lokolama. He spoke with the Provincial Coordinator of the Environment and Sustainable Development. No government official would help him. The environmental officer demanded the rough equivalent of $140 just to check if the logger had the permits. The prosecutor wouldn’t send anyone to investigate unless Papa Joseph coughed up $80. Papa Joseph thought the environmental officials would do something, they did nothing. This meant that Guy the logger and Tout Va Bien could cut down the trees of Lokolama with impunity.

“We don’t have the money to protect the peatlands,” he admitted. “It’s not our fault. We want to protect it, but we don’t have the means.”

Ruth Maclean, the New York Times reporter, did some more fact-finding. She learned that in November 2021, at COP26, the United Nations conference, rich nations, along with the Bezos Earth Fund, pledged 1.5 billion dollars to protect the peatlands of the Congo Basin. They funneled the money through an organization called the Central African Forest Initiative Trust Fund. They funneled that money again through international organizations, who then sent it to local projects. So, when the New York Times reporter tried to meet with Papy Ekate Ekofo, the minister of the environment for Équateur Province (where most of the peatlands are located), she couldn’t get a hold of him to verify Papa Joseph’s allegations. He was in Kinshasa trying to convince his boss, the national minister of the environment, to allocate money to Équateur. When she caught up with him in Kinshasa, he acknowledged that there was corruption in the department that awarded logging permits and leaving little money in his budget to enforce land rights. He said that loggers could get permits to buy trees from a village, and they rarely ever stuck to the permitted logging areas or the specific trees the permits allowed. “The way they are logging is murder,” he confessed. “If they continue to log like this, the peatlands will be destroyed.”

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Papy Ekate Ekofo, the minister of the environment for Équateur Province

Ruth Maclean learned that Guy the logger visited the government offices in Mbandaka, too. She convinced him to meet with her at their hotel to get his side of the story. Guy admitted that the government officials called him in to request a bigger bribe to turn a blind eye to his lack of permits. They asked for $200; he paid it and went on his way. After admitting this, he excused himself, gently pushed his chair away from his table, stood up and walked into the night. He explained had to get up early the next morning to return to the forest.

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The night sky in the Cuvette Centrale. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Ovide Emba took the New York Times reporters with him in a speedboat 100 miles up the river to the village of Mpeka, another area where scientists discovered peat. As was the tradition, the chief (Chief Jean-Paul Ikolongo Sefala Yekay) greeted them with a basket of fish. But the greeting was just politeness. The chief complained that Mr. Emba brought researchers to his village to take peat samples and offered nothing in return. He had asked Ovide for a gift of a speedboat, and for someone to repair the roof of the school that collapsed in a storm. He accused Mr. Emba of coming to the village, cheating him and leaving. The science student was in an uncomfortable position. The Congolese government offered no infrastructure to the village, leaving the unfair and unrealistic onus of responsibility on Mr. Emba. Ovide knew deep down that soon new people would come – this time with chainsaws and cash to give the chief. As they continued their trip down the great Congo River, Ovide saw signs of deforestation: giant floating rafts of logs from trees cut down – headed to Kinshasa.

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Jean-Paul Ikolongo Sefala Yekay, seated, the chief of the riverine village of Mpeka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
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All along the Congo River are signs of deforestation. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
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At their hotel in Mbandaka, the Times reporters saw a group of Chinese business people in the restaurant. They were celebrating the closing of the deal they made in the forest on behalf of their corporation. The men showed them a video they took on their mobile devices of villagers rejoicing and asking them to stay longer after they agreed to sell them their trees.

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The road from Mbandaka has brought foreigners seeking natural resources. First, the Belgians came for wild rubber; more recently, others, including the Chinese, have eyed the trees for timber. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Back in Lokolama, Papa Joseph was worried about the future of his peatlands. “If the state does nothing, in 50 years’ time, I don’t even want to imagine,” he mourned. “If there were people who cared,” he added, but then his voice trailed off. He recruited the help of his younger brother. His plan was to return to Mbandaka to appeal to the government officials one last time. He even rehearsed his speech. “We don’t have money. Can you accept the little we have?” He climbed onto the motorcycle, sandwiched between the driver and his little brother, and away they went- down the road his great-grandfather built.

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Papa Joseph, squeezed between a motorcycle driver and his brother, sets off for Mbandaka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann