DR Congo: A country of many ecological challenges and hopes

DR Congo: A country of many ecological challenges and hopes

Jean Mboma SJ and Pedro Walpole SJ

The Jesuits in Central Africa Province (Province d’Afrique Centrale) face massive challenges in responding to the ecological and social concerns of the landscape and the people in DR Congo (DRC). There is a great need to improve the wellbeing of the people and also contribute to the management of the resource conflicts and sustainability needed.

The country’s capital, Kinshasa, is a rapidly expanding city of about 20 million people, quadrupling in the last 20 years with over 50% below the age of 22. As expected, infrastructure is a struggle in a city this size and the main road east from the airport going west is a continuous roadside market.

Yellow vans and cars are the general public transport, with the recent additions of motorcycles and tricycles to the traffic. The vast portion of the population find what work, food, and water they can, while the challenges of engaging the youth creatively extend for generations. The city center is on the great Congo River, just past the delta like sedimentations of the Pool Malebo, a lake-like widening in the lower part of the river.

South of the city in the low hills, on the plateau of Kimwenza, is the Jesuit parish of Saint Mary that began in 1906. Nearby is the entrance to Saint Peter Canisius Scholasticate between the two baobab trees, traditionally ensuring one leaves behind any ill spirits. The scholasticate is a wonderfully air-cooled building built in 1954 that challenge campuses today to emulate for this generation. Université Loyola du Congo (LUC) (Loyola University of Congo) started in 2016, merging the existing faculties of philosophy (1954) and agriculture (1994), and sharing the rich and diverse history of Jesuit presence on the landscape.

Some of the more recent constructions and farm buildings suffered badly during an extreme event of heavy rains and winds on 18 March this year, an impact of a changing climate that people in the area are experiencing. The trees took a great toll and thus left most houses unscathed.

There is also a creeping shift in the seasons. The dry season (18 to 27oC) from May to August is now shifting to May to end September. The rainy season (22 to 33oC) runs from September to December. The “small” dry season in January is shifting to mid-January to mid-February. February to April is the time of very heavy monsoon rains.

The DRC has great diversity in ecosystems with its vast rainforest of the Congo basin. There are the dry rainforests (Muhulu), open woodland forests (Miombo), savannahs, with cloud and gallery forests to the east. The protected areas, covering only eight percent of the land, are challenged to be the core resource sustaining the national biodiverse heritage.

The Congo River dominates the ecological richness as it flows through the country, sustained by and sustaining the tropical forest lands, and stores eight percent of global forest carbon stocks. Arable land is about 80 million hectares but there are also 1,100 listed minerals and precious metals having a huge copper basin and a whole array of gemstones. It is worth noting that only about 10% of the arable land is used for agriculture.

Still within Kinshasa province, the Batéké Plateau lies to the east. This area is basically savannah with very limited agriculture such as some acacia plantations that are most noticeable on the burned landscape. The land is now occupied by the growing population that is increased by the conflict in the east.

It is in this area, in Mongata, that the Jesuits have around 300 hectares of land. Over the last 10 years, the LUC-Faculté des Sciences Agronomiques et Vétérinaires (School of Agricultural Sciences) established a farm and school with these objectives:

  1. To plant acacia trees for agroforestry and beekeeping, and start growing some commercial crops
  2. To accompany local farmers in the process of improving agricultural practices
  3. To build a school for local children from 6 to 12 years of age and provide them opportunities to be familiar with the land and food production processes

The primary school was established in 2019 and drawing in the capacities locally is always a challenge. The acacia was planted as an investment that could be harvested for charcoal, and would self-generate. The initial crop chosen this year was the maize on five hectares and is now followed on with some cassava to the side. The first harvest of four tonnes per hectares is expected this month.

There have been many challenges along the way, but the aim of the program is valued from the critical understanding of the social needs that must be addressed in the country and the ecological challenges that are seen with the broader population.

For this, the Center for Agroecology, Food Security, and Nutrition (CASAN) will be launched shortly that aims to work with nearby farmers and develop appropriate training that can provide opportunities to grow crops, with a deeper understanding of the critical links between agriculture, nutrition, and health.

How do the Jesuits find hope in all its efforts, small and big, and feel challenged to live the mission of Jesus Christ in this massive reality in DRC?

The biggest challenge is clearly seen in education and the basic quality that needs to be ensured. The tried and proven importance of Jesuit schools is a solid foundation upon which the Jesuit university emerged and grew. Second is the how-to of organizing and sharing a common local community focus, collaborating with a diversity of NGOs that have made significant impact over the years in managing projects with the local people. The third is in generating livelihood and a greater sense of responsibility in society.

There is great hope and humility expressed in such efforts of accompanying people from below and consistently trying to build the interest, commitment, and capacity over time. Given the scale of the challenges, the response can seem insignificant and irrelevant, but it is the mustard seed.

As these challenges, realities, responses, and particular efforts are found across the world, one question might be: Is there anything to be learned across these experiences that might be of value? What would be the basis for sharing experiences and understanding the diversity, as well as the possible opportunities?

Jean Mboma SJ, PhD, is Dean of the School of Agricultural Sciences, Loyola University of Congo, and accompanied Pedro Walpole SJ, Ecojesuit Global Coordinator, in visiting the ecological and social responses of the Central Africa Province in Kinshasa, DRC in early July 2024.

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