Rainforest Degradation in the Congo Basin

In a series of black and white photographs and an accompanying movie by Etienne Maury, Leonora Baumann investigates the complex question of deforestation in Congo at a local level.

© Leonora Baumann, from the series, Kotya Libaya. Park rangers from the ICCN (Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) are seen inspecting a truck loaded with bags of makala nearby the Virunga National Park (one of the last homes for mountain gorillas).

Leonora Baumann travelled several times to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, working mainly on the subjects of women's rights and early pregnancy. That’s when she noticed how naked the peripheries of the cities were, with a few bare trunks reminding the passer-by of a lush past. She also crossed paths with dozens of trucks and scooters filled with large dusty bags of vegetal coal to be sold at the market, and started to investigate the phenomenon. “I did a bit of research about deforestation and was stunned by the numbers. I realised the extent of the situation”, Baumann recounts. And indeed, despite a few obvious scenes - especially from the sky - deforestation in the DRC melts within people’s daily life as a silent environmental drama that unravels with no fanfare, nor much choice.

“The country is so big that it’s extremely hard to control, not to mention the rampant corruption. Some initiatives were implemented by COP21 (the 2015 Paris Climate Conference), but people must take ownership of them now. I am not sure it will work after the NGO’s support is over”, she explains.

© Leonora Baumann, from the series, Kotya Libaya. A woman is seen plowing her crops with a hoe. Because of a lack of investment in the sector, agriculture - which occupies 70% of the population - remains widely artisanal and of subsistence.

The Afodek Project, for instance, aims to guarantee food security and increase the income of the populations of Haut Katanga, all while limiting the deforestation resulting from charcoal production in the province. But, those are mid-term projects that work in 10-year cycles, while the population’s needs are immediate. “One gives a piece of land to families who in return plant a hectare of acacias forest. After 8 years, they can start cutting the trees to turn them into coal. But will farmers be able to wait that long if their children get ill?”, Baumann wonders.

And this, especially since the benefits for locals remain limited. Only 11% of the population has access to electricity today, and yet, it’s not a 24/7 service. “As people say, electricity comes and goes”, Baumann remarks. Coal sells well and offers energy for primary needs such as cooking - it’s the go-to for most people living in the countryside.

© Leonora Baumann, from the series, Kotya Libaya. Women are seen going to a market in the neighbouring town to sell their "chikwangue" (a traditional meal made of cassava) and other forest goods. Local populations rely mostly on the forests for their subsistence.

To translate the complexity of the situation, Baumann chose to step aside from the spectacular images of desolate landscapes. Instead, she focused on the daily reality of locals who practice slash-and-burn cultivation to sustain themselves in a more and more arid environment; who spontaneously cover accidently broken trees with soil to turn them into a bit of coal and money; and who make deals with rebel groups hidden in national reserves to collect a denser wood for coal.

All this to survive, even though they notice the premises of climate change in this unique carbon sink. “The link between poverty and development is complex. If investments went to building power plants instead of going to carbon-free projects, the benefits for the population would be more direct and they may change their habits, but everything is made to nurture a certain system”, Baumann exclaims.

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Leonora Baumann is a French-German freelance photographer. She is currently working on both personal projects and assignments for NGO’s and international media outlets.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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