Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Congo Rainforest and Prospects for the Next Pandemic
The Congo Rainforest and Prospects for the Next Pandemic

The Congo Rainforest and Prospects for the Next Pandemic

The Congo Rainforest is one of, if not the most, important regions in the world for biodiversity and carbon storage. With deforestation leading the Amazon Rainforest to emit more carbon dioxide than it can absorb, the Congo Rainforest is quickly becoming humankind’s last best hope to slow the harmful effects of climate change. This rainforest is estimated to host over 10,000 species of plants (30 percent of which are not found anywhere else) and stores about 60 billion metric tons of carbon in its vegetation and soil—critical for keeping global temperatures down. It also happens to be one of the world’s last largely undeveloped natural resource centers and is crucial for the production of cobalt and other raw materials used in high-value products such as electronics. As essential as the rainforest is to the global economy, it also faces the most negative impacts of climate change. The countries which host the forest are at the highest risk for regional instability, disease outbreaks, and infrastructure collapse.

Why is Protecting This Precious Resource Not a High Priority?

Countries across the globe are affected by climate change in different ways. For example, Americans and the Global North produce most of the carbon dioxide but are experiencing significantly fewer adverse effects, such as droughts and crop failures, than countries in the Global South, like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A lack of these immediate and pressing effects makes the rainforest’s protection easier to deprioritize.

Ironically, developed countries from the Global North are also significant contributors to Africa’s carbon emissions. International companies’ resource-extracting operations add significantly to carbon dioxide emissions, even while the companies’ host countries attempt to reach low-emissions goals. These groups participate in unsustainable logging practices, taking advantage of government corruption and lack of enforcement to acquire timber from protected areas.

However, this is only the second most significant driver of disturbance in the Congo Rainforest. Small-scale agricultural clearing by impoverished indigenous communities accounts for 84% of deforestation. Indigenous communities need forest resources to survive, especially because rainforest-hosting countries like the DRC have some of the world’s worst infrastructures. Transportation, water, and electricity are unattainable for most of the DRC’s population, so communities must cut down trees from the rainforest—an illegal practice—to make charcoal for cooking fuel.

The Next Pandemic

These unsustainable practices in the Congo, by both indigenous and international groups, are conduits for a larger surface area of human-animal interactions. This increases the risk of disease transmission to forest-adjacent peoples and facilitates the migration of typically tropical diseases to other parts of the world, including Europe and North America, by contributing to rising global temperatures.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic fresh in mind, the global community must pay attention to what is happening in the Congo because the next pandemic could be as infectious as COVID-19 and as deadly as Ebola.

Global warming increases the number and spread of viruses by facilitating greater survivability ranges for different types of insects. When the temperature of a region increases, insects that normally can’t survive cooler climates can extend their habitation areas. This dynamic expands their potential to mix with new species of plants and animals, modifying viruses or creating new ones altogether. Examples of this include increasing cases of mosquito-borne diseases found in the temperate climates of Europe and North America: Chikungunya virus, West Nile virus, Usutu virus, and Toscana virus. Malaria is also expected to resurface, becoming more common in the Global North. Deforestation and habitat degradation in the Congo directly contribute to this increase in temperature, and therefore the spread of pathogens.

As previously mentioned, the Congo Rainforest has an astonishing amount of biodiversity, which also includes pathogens and parasites. Most new infectious diseases that emerge in humans are zoonotic, and scientists estimate that there are about 1.6 million viruses currently in birds and mammals. About 700,000 of these viruses can make the jump from animals to humans, but thus far only 250 out of the 700,000 have been detected in humans. There are still hundreds of thousands of potentially deadly viruses that could make the leap at any point and start another pandemic.

Emerging epidemics are a constant concern for health workers and researchers in the Congo basin. Over this past year and a half, countries in the Congo basin have experienced zoonotic disease outbreaks, such as Lassa fever (Nigeria) and Ebola (DRC), in addition to the COVID-19 crisis. Managing the flare-ups of these known diseases is difficult, but health workers and researchers in the rainforest must remain vigilant against new unknown pathogens. Efforts by the DRC’s Center for Disease Control to test bats as part of an early-warning system for viruses—while valiant and important—are not widespread enough to keep up with the transmissions that can occur from the exotic bushmeat market.

The multibillion-dollar worldwide bushmeat market is one of the most common places for human-animal disease incubation. As former American Ambassador to the DRC and expert on African affairs Herman Cohen describes, “If you go to a market in the Congo, you will see monkey meat. . . . For many people, bushmeat is the only meat available. A large portion of the population has no other way of getting meat besides going into the forest and killing the monkeys.”

The bushmeat market also includes live wild animals, captured in the rainforest. Each year, “The U.N. estimates that some 5 million tons of wild meat are harvested . . . from the Congo Basin.” These animals are eaten or kept for private purposes, such as petting zoos. Though killing monkeys and transporting live animals out of the Congo is illegal, many people worldwide are willing to overlook the legality and health risks for what they view as exotic delicacies. For others, bushmeat provides the majority of their sustenance and income.

The Need for Climate-Smart Agriculture

While importing livestock would seem like an obvious solution, temperatures and insect populations in the tropics inhibit their upkeep. High-temperature areas that host pathogen-carrying insects mean the animals cannot survive and breed safely. As a result, more and more of the African population has fewer safe meat options.

With all of these interconnecting problems, it is more vital than ever to consider creative solutions. Regarding meat inaccessibility, Ambassador Cohen offers some insight:

Let the Congo farmers grow livestock feed, like manioc. . . . Sell the livestock feed to the livestock owners, and in return, the livestock owners will build abattoirs (slaughterhouses) and buy refrigerated vehicles. They can ship refrigerated meat to those parts of Africa where they cannot have livestock, such as southern Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, Congo. . . . I think it is a win-win situation. There is no need for climate change to ruin everything.

While this might help reduce disease transmission problems with bushmeat, to address the root causes of disease spread, the global community must develop ways to mitigate deforestation and provide sustenance to indigenous people. Forest areas high in biodiversity may actually buffer people from some infectious diseases through the dilution effect. Therefore, offering alternative farming methods and implementing better management for logging and resource extraction industries are critical.

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is one of these crucial alternative farming methods that has shown success in providing sustenance to local populations while also protecting the environment. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Climate-smart agriculture is the agriculture that (1) sustainably increases productivity, (2) reduces climate change vulnerability (enhance adaptation), (3) reduces emissions that cause climate change (mitigation), while (4) protecting the environment against degradation and (5) enhancing food security and improved livelihood of a given society.” In Basin countries, this would take form through alleviating soil disturbance with practices that refrain from direct seeding and rotate in crops, such as trees, that can introduce more nitrogen into the soil.

Regarding limited fuel sources, alternative sustainable methods to charcoal production could include natural gas. In the past several decades, there have been large natural gas discoveries in the African countries of Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ghana, as well as increased productivity in Algerian and Nigerian gas fields. According to a 2019 study published by Insight on Africa, these gas resources could provide an abundant and cleaner fuel alternative. The study mentions that African nations and the global community “need to invest in LNG (liquified natural gas) plants, pipelines and gas-powered thermal plants to boost power production” because natural gas is cheaper than oil and can be turned into power more readily. Therefore, it “represents the ideal fuel for Africa’s power challenges.” The LNG canisters could be shipped out from West African gas fields to Congo Basin countries as an alternative to charcoal, and then shipped back to be refilled.

Challenges for the United States and the Rest of the World

While changes must be made by the Africans who live near the rainforest, the world must also provide assistance and materials to enable resource-rich but capability-poor countries to tackle these complex climate problems. At the same time, wealthy nations like the United States and China (the two biggest economies and major polluters of the environment) must reduce their carbon footprints and take due responsibility for their unstainable practices in the Congo Rainforest.

The United States and other countries must also encourage more private and public investment in the area, including working with African governments to create business environments that stimulate domestic investment.

The world needs to prioritize preserving the Congo Rainforest and improving the living standards of the people who live on its periphery. This issue is larger than Africa. Climate change is an existential issue, and while Africa as a continent is currently the hardest hit by climate change, if the Congo Rainforest is not preserved, the impact will continue to expand around the globe.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.