Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rape Terror Report Updated

Anderson Cooper's report on CBS TV's Sixty Minutes reflects stories like those told in Heart of Diamonds. The original episode aired in January, but was updated in August. The report bears watching because it's a story that needs to be told again and again until the brutality stops in the Congo.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lines On A Map

The map of Africa is almost complete. On March 11, 1913, Britain and Germany signed a treaty that determined who got what in the region divided by the Akwayafe River. On August 21, 2008, two states that did not exist at that time put the border agreement into effect once again, with Nigeria formally handing over the Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon.

The two countries, driven to the brink of war by the possibility that oil was to be found in the region, had supplied yellowing documents from the colonial era to justify their claims before the World Court in 2002. This agreement supposedly ends that dispute.

What's of interest is that the lines drawn by Nigeria and Cameroon bear no more relation to the wishes of the people who live in the region than did the squiggles placed on the map by the Europeans 95 years earlier. What do national borders mean, anyway? Does it matter who drew them?

The question isn’t really whether Africa should observe colonial borders, it’s whether a choice exists to do otherwise. After all, what option exists? Even if by some miracle the lines on the map could be re-drawn, would we have each tribe be the master of its own country? Each and every linguistic group? Each and every religious sect? The mind boggles at the prospect.

All national borders–-as well as all states, provinces, parishes, canons, counties, cities, towns, and hamlets–-are arbitrarily imposed by some group on another. With luck, they serve to unite disparate residents into a common cause that promotes and protects the greater good. What matters isn’t the borders or who drew them; it’s what good will lies in the hearts of the people within.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Striking Congo Doctors Return To Work

A week-long strike by doctors in the Democratic Republic of Congo has ended with a promise. It remains to be seen whether this one is any better than the last pledge by the government to address the concerns of Synamed, the union representing the physicians.

The doctors say although they are returning to work, they are skeptical the government will abide by the agreement to increase salaries and address the deterioration of the medical system in the ravaged country. Kambamba Mbwebe, a doctor in the 2,000-bed Kinshasa General Hospital, said,

"I personally don't rely on that government. This is not the first time they are promising things. University professors had the same bad game, they (government) promised to increase their salaries and it was exactly the same thing. The government failed to live up to its word. This is the same problems with many professional groups although there is a document that has been signed with our unions, I'm still skeptical.”

Kinshasa General Hospital logs over 3,000 consultations daily. Its 2,000 beds are constantly full. Patients are expected to pay for treatment, but fees aren’t nearly high enough to cover costs. The vast majority of the patient population is impoverished, which doesn’t help.

Doctors in public hospitals earn about 120,000 Congolese francs per month, including bonuses. That works out to about $216, a sum insufficient to cover even the Congo’s low cost of living. Many doctors are reported to be on the verge of eviction for inability to pay rent. They are asking for a raise to an average of $580 per month as well as payment of a risk bonus and permanent appointments for doctors with temporary employment.

The government, meanwhile, claims to have fulfilled to the doctors’ demands.
“We did not ignore any of the doctors’ claims. Quite to the contrary, many of the issues were resolved between January and August 2008,” said Makwenge Kaput, the Minister for Health.
He claims that unpaid bonuses had been paid and salaries raised.

Mbwebe responds,
“It’s unacceptable that ministers, government officials and members of parliament earn more than $4,000 a month and buy new cars while we suffer.”
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Congo Doctors Strike

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and setting for many scenes in Heart of Diamonds, is a metropolis of 8,000,000 people served by a dozen public hospitals and 2,700 doctors. Those doctors went on strike this week.

The cause was low salaries. Doctors in public hospitals earn about 120,000 Congolese francs per month, including bonuses. That works out to about $216, or roughly the price of a 15-minute office visit to a doctor in America.

A spokesman for Synamed, the union representing the physicians, accused the government of reneging on an agreement to provide an extra $3.6 million for salary increases in July following a previous strike in January. "Nothing has been done since, so we have decided to begin a general strike from today," said Synamed chief Mankoy Badjoky on Monday. The strike will continue until "the government honors its commitments," Badjoky added. Nearly all doctors in Kinshasa took part in the strike this week while it was also observed in other cities.

The doctors are demanding a salary of 320,000 Congolese francs ($580) per month as well as payment of a risk bonus and permanent appointments for doctors with temporary employment.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Congo Rainforest Irony

The irony was leafy green and growing like a giant red mahogany tree as conflicting reports on logging in the Congo were released on the same day this month. In one, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification has now been achieved for forestry operations on nearly 3 million acres in the Congo River Basin. In the other, a World Bank-backed review of all timber contracts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said that more than three quarters of its logging deals should be canceled for not meeting necessary standards.

Ecologists calling for more logging? Government demanding a halt? It's the kind of news that makes the Congo endlessly fascinating.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to 358-million acres of rainforest, the world’s second-largest tract of oxygen-producing, air-scrubbing greenery. It’s a rich resource among the many natural assets (like diamonds, the prize at the center of Heart of Diamonds, my novel of the Congo) that have attracted exploiters from all over the globe for over a hundred years. According to Greenpeace, more than 40% of it will disappear before timber industry chainsaws by 2050.

It doesn’t have to happen, of course, and steps are being taken to prevent an ecological and economic disaster of those proportions. Unlike diamonds, trees are a sustainable resource. Careful management of forests can provide fuel, lumber, and pulp—thus generating jobs, tax revenues, and economic stimulus to a country that sorely needs them—while maintaining the environmentally-critical forest itself for the long term. That’s what the FSC certification is supposed to encourage. Laurent Somé, WWF Central Africa Regional Programme Office (CARPO)'s Representative, says

"WWF is convinced that the adoption of responsible forestry schemes by logging companies will contribute greatly to the conservation of the Congo Basin forests and towards improving the national economy and also improve the livelihoods of local communities."
The critical element is governmental oversight of logging concessions to insure that logging companies practice sustainable forestry while living up to contracts that provide tax revenues to build desperately-needed roads, schools, and hospitals. The DRC review of the technical and legal aspects of 156 logging deals, mostly signed during a 1998-2003 war and subsequent corruption-plagued interim government, showed that only 29 of the contracts met the minimum standards required.

Among the contracts recommended for cancellation are 10 of 16 belonging to Portuguese-owned Sodefor, a unit of NST. Siforco, a subsidiary of Germany's Danzer Group, had three of its nine deals highlighted as corrupt while Safbois found both of its contracts on the cancellation list. Together the three companies account for more than 66 percent of all timber exported from Congo.

Many of the deals were signed despite a moratorium on logging contracts imposed by the DRC in 2002. According to Greenpeace, concessions were bought for pennies and tax and royalty payments avoided by manipulation of records, off-shore accounting shenanigans, and under-reporting of timber harvests. The DRC’s ability to bring the industry under control will be a key determinant of the Congo’s economic future.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Team Gives Hope To Child Soldiers

Lopez Lomong, the Sudanese "lost boy" who led 600 American athletes onto the field during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, could be Christophe, one of the main characters in Heart of Diamonds, my novel of scandal, love and death in the Congo. Lomong’s story had a happy, triumphal ending; Christophe’s tale is more typical of the thousands of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other nations where boys and girls are kidnapped, drugged, brainwashed, and bullied into becoming killers, rapists, and sex slaves.

In 1991, Lomong fled the Sudan at the age of six after having been separated from his parents by the civil war between the Arab north and Christian south that left two million dead in his still-deeply-troubled native land. He was one of the "lost boys" who trekked on foot for hundreds of miles, many dying of starvation and even lion attacks as they made their way to refugee camps in Kenya. In 2001, he was one of the 4,000 boys resettled in the United States.

Lomong is now an American citizen, a successful middle-distance runner, who was chosen by his teammates to carry the Stars and Stripes in the parade of nations during the opening ceremonies in Beijing. Christophe is a fictional character, but his story is much more typical.

In the opening scene of Heart of Diamonds, Christophe tells how he was captured and forced to watch his mother’s brutal rape, torture, and murder by guerrillas who attacked his village near the Congo’s border with Angola. The fourteen-year-old is forced to kill a fellow villager before being marched away to begin his life as a child soldier. He plays a key role throughout the book, but his story doesn’t end as happily as Lopez Lomong’s.

Heart of Diamonds is a work of fiction, of course, but thousands of children in the Congo have suffered Christophe’s fate. They are captured by militias, guerrillas, and war lords like dissident general Laurent Nkunda, whose National Congress for the Defense of the Congolese (CNDP), was reported to have deployed child soldiers as recently as December, 2007. Bosco Ntaganda, chief of staff of Nkunda’s militia, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for conscripting children, but Nkunda has refused to turn him over for trial.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Congo Children Ultimately Suffer

Children suffer more and different abuses than adults in many ways. A boy in Gbadolite, a town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was killed recently when an object he was using as a hammer blew up in his face. It was a land mine, one of thousands abandoned in the DRC during the last ten years of war and rebellion.

Incidents like these are one of the long-term effects of war on children, a major theme in Heart of Diamonds.

The UN Refugee Agency in the DRC reports that 892 people have been killed and 1,118 injured by mines and UXO’s (unexploded ordnance) strewn across the countryside since 2001. Many of them were children, killed because they don’t know the difference between explosives and toys. Philippe Sondizi Dombale, head of Humanitas Ugbangi, an NGO in Molegbe, northern DRC, told the UN’s IRIN that five children died in Dongo when a grenade exploded as they were playing with it.

The DRC ratified the global anti-personnel mine ban treaty in 2002, but government armed forces are only one of many combatants across the country. The government also lacks resources to conduct the large-scale de-mining campaigns necessary to remove the menace. According to Mine Advisory Group (MAG) country director Marc Angibeaud, de-mining efforts through international NGOs such as MAG, Handicap International and DanChurchAid, have cleared the countryside of thousands of anti-personnel mines and UXO, especially in Equateur, Maniema, Katanga and South Kivu provinces, but they have only scratched the surface.

Even if all arms in Congo were laid down today, children will be maimed and killed by unexploded mines for many years to come.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Oil Toil and Trouble in DRC

Petroleum is about to join gold, uranium, cobalt, copper, coltan, and diamonds as a major source of wealth—and probably trouble—for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While I was in Uganda last year researching Heart of Diamonds, a spat over oil sparked military actions on the border shared by the two countries around Lake Edward, where major oil deposits have been found. Earlier this year, civil unrest percolated on the other side of the country in Bas-Congo, where other oil development projects are underway.

The Congo’s potential oil reserves aren’t really known, although expectations are high. Numerous exploration projects have been carried out and contracts for development are being let. A trickle of petroleum is flowing in several locations, but more will come as the projects expand. DRC Minister for Hydrocarbons Lambert Mende Omalang says that oil revenue currently represents more than 25 percent of government budget income. This figure could increase following the discovery of new oil blocks in the central basin in northwestern province of Equator, in the western region of Bandundu, as well as in the eastern region of Ituri.

Here are a few current and announced projects gleaned from industry source

Dominion Petroleum has teamed with partners SOCO International PLC (SOCO) and State Oil Company Congolaise des Hydrocarbures (COHYDRO) in a Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) covering exclusive rights to explore for petroleum in eastern DRC next to the border with Uganda. The area is known as Block 5 and incorporates 7,105 sq km of land and lake areas around Lake Edward. It adjoins a region in Uganda where Dominion has carried out exploration activity as operator since July 2007. Both Blocks are part of the Albertine Rift system of sedimentary basins where significant oil discoveries were made in 2006 and 2007.

The most significant region, though is the sizeable sedimentary basin off the western coast that contains all the oil fields of Congo-Brazzaville, Cabinda, DRC, and north-western mainland Angola, an area that’s presumed to have over a billion barrels of oil.

SOCO also has received a Presidential Decree (the final regulatory hurdle) to begin work in the Nganzi Block in the DRC. The Nganzi Block, where there had been little previous activity before 2006, comprises an area of approximately 800 sq km on the eastern flank of the prolific coastal basin. Acquisition of oil is expected to commence this year.

An aeromagnetic and gravity survey has been mounted by EnerGulf of its Lotshi Block, a concession in the DRC. The survey is designed to identify and map structural trends and leads of the Congo coastal basin. The Lotshi Block covers approx 475 sq km in the offshore coastal basin of the western DRC. It is contiguous to the highly productive Cabinda area of Angola. EnerGulf is the operator of the block.

Surestream Petroleum, a private exploration and production company founded by Moustapha Niasse (twice Prime Minister of Senegal) has been looking for a strategic partner for its working interest in the Ndunda Block, which covers an area of approximately 932 square kilometers located in the narrow coastal strip of the Congo River estuary, sandwiched between mainland Angola and Cabinda.

Two American companies, Chevron and PerencoRep, are working in the coastal city of Muanda in the western region of Bas-Congo, bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Good Intentions Can Backfire In Africa

One of the most persistent problems faced by those trying to bring essential services to developing countries is illustrated by a story I read recently on Sociolingo’s Africa. Here’s a brief excerpt:

I guess I have been around long enough that I am rarely really shocked. However, a story on IPS News from Malawi caught my eye, and yes - I admit it - I am shocked. Read the following:

LILONGWE, Jun 27 (IPS) - Gladys Mawera’s face is contorted with pain -– both she and her newborn baby survived a complicated birth three days ago — but she has not been able to take the painkillers and antibiotics prescribed to her by the medical personnel at the Chiradzulu District Hospital in southern Malawi. The hospital has been without water for five days.

“I am disgusted with my own smell and that of my baby,” says Mawera, who is still wrapped in bloodstained linens as she cradles her child. “There is literally not a drop of water around here,” worries Mawera.

That last line in the highlighted paragraph does it for me. As you read on in the article your mouth drops further and further.

This is not some rustic hospital in the back of beyond. This is a state of the art modern hospital built in 2005 at a cost of 25 million dollars European Union funding which is trying to exist with highly erratic water supplies. In this state of the art hospital, x-rays services are suspended, operations are suspended, patients do not even have water to drink, nurses and doctors do not have water to wash in, linen cannot be washed. How can the hospital function?

It’s all about infrastructure–or the lack thereof–which is essential to building modern societies.

Before modern agricultural methods can be used to compete on world markets, all-weather roads and railroads must exist to take the commodities to market. Before manufacturing plants can operate and provide high-paying jobs, reliable electric power must be available. Before first-class health care can be provided, the hospital must have a plentiful supply of clean water, as this story shows.

We in the West take great pride in projects like the recently-announced $211 million (US) initiative to conserve rainforests in the Congo Basin through the use of advanced satellite camera technology and community-based conservation projects. Personally, I’d rather see the governments of Britain and Norway (who are funding the project), put that money into water towers and pumping stations, concrete roadways, and hydro-electric plants. Global warming is an important issue and there are no easy answers, but the people of Africa will never achieve their full potential until resources are committed to the building blocks of modern society.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Rainforest Disappears In Congo

The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment recently presented Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment, a study that features over 300 satellite images taken in every country in Africa in over 100 locations. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs, some of which span a 35-year period, offer striking snapshots of local environmental transformation across the continent. It chronicles how development choices, population growth, climate change and, in some cases, conflicts are impacting the natural assets of the region.

Here are two views of the region around Bumba in the Nord-Ubangi and Mongala provinces of the DRC. The one on the right is from 1975. You can see the pattern of deforestation concentrated along the local roads as loops of light green through the otherwise dense rain forest. In the right-side image, taken in 2003, these deforested corridors have widened considerably, almost joining in many places.

Most of this deforestation is the result of agricultural conversion, fuelwood collection, settlement, and artisanal logging. Networks of logging roads can also be seen within two of the patches of largely intact forest in the lower right corner of the 2003 image. Full size high resolution images are available at UNEP Atlas of our Changing Environment.

The report says

While industrial logging has had a relatively small impact in the DRC in the past, it has recently become the most extensive form of land use in Central Africa. More than half of the area visible in these images is under logging concession. The selective logging practised by commercial logging companies has been shown to have long-lasting impacts on forest composition. Logging roads have been shown to significantly increase bushmeat hunting.
In addition to local and logging roads, a recent study for the World Bank suggests the road from Bangui, CAR, to Kisangani, DRC, be improved as part of a continental road network. The study shows that the network would increase trade on this route enormously. It also acknowledges concern that parts of the road network that would experience the greatest increase in trade correspond to areas with the highest biodiversity.
It’s also interesting to note that the relative peace in this part of the country has enabled the commercial development that’s causing this deforestation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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