National Geographic : 2005 Sep
Deforestationthreatens m Degraded rain forest the central African rain m Lowland rain forest forest. Congo's share, Populated area (more than 100 people home to thousands of per square kilometer) Pygmies, holds riches SOURCES:MATTHEWC.HANSEN AND ERIKLINDOUIST.SOUTH coveted by both the Con- DAKOTASTATEUNIVERSITY; coveted by bh t on- BARRYS.HEWLETT,WASHINGTON STATEUNIV.,VANCOUVER;TOM golese and densely popu- PATTERSON,NATIONALPARK golese SERVICE; OAKRIDGENATIONAL LABORATORYLANDSCAN2003 lated nations to the east. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAPS for hundreds of miles through a tropical forest second in size only to the Amazon. They span a landscape where the 20th century has ebbed like a neap tide, leaving behind the detritus of modernity: towns with trees growing from roofs, factories crumbling like Maya ruins, coffee plan tations run wild. The roads are no longer roads. They are Ho Chi Minh trails of survival. And in their shadow smeared margins the Mbuti can be glimpsed, shy, silent, watchful. In many cases it is their own world, dismantled and repackaged into sellable commodities, which they see passing by. The Pyg mies covet, as we all would, the aluminum pots, cigarettes, and manufactured clothing carried by Congo's bicycle caravans. Yet in exchange, loads of timber, wild meat, and gold are streaming out of their forest home along the same tracks a bonanza of raw materials swindled from the Pygmies by unscrupulous shopkeepers and mid dlemen. Moreover, the tiny hunters' ancient bonds of trade with local farmers-a quasi feudal system that swaps Mbuti field labor and forest products for food crops and metal tools are becoming frayed. "They are easy to cheat," a roadside merchant says of the Pygmies along the way."Like children." In effect, the Mbuti are gaining their inde pendence-which in Congo's feral east means they are free to lose everything to the tatterde malion parade of pilgrims, many in far worse straits, who trod the dying remnants of the trans-African highways built by the colonial Bel gians: the child soldiers in baggy new uniforms 84 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2005 supplied by Russian gunrunners; the whores in blood-red ball gowns, bouncing atop toleka men's bicycles; the hollow-eyed refugees seek ing sons, daughters, and parents long since van ished into the smoke of civil war; a rabble of small-time loggers, miners, and peddlers; and the howling, genocidal militias daubed with human blood and toothpaste (toothpaste sticks despite the rain and sweat). I depart the frontier town of Beni at dawn on the back of a motorbike. The driver's name is Willy. He is a stoic in sunglasses. His reflexes his balance-are things of rare beauty. For 11 brutal hours we penetrate the Ituri. We pass col umns of traders who slog head down, sweating, through clouds of butterflies. Stinking bogs the size of swimming pools block the way. It is the worst road in the world. "Ah, if only Isabella Rossellini knew our situ ation," an Italian priest says at a mission where I pause to rest. The padre, a veteran of Congo's chaos, explains that Rossellini, the glamorous international film star and daughter of Ingrid Bergman, donates to African conservation and philanthropic projects. I am too exhausted to speak. Sore-assed, I can barely sit at the priest's dining table. "Rossellini could help fix our road," he per sists, "if only she knew about it." But his eyes betray him. He stares wistfully into his pasta. Because, of course, she doesn't know.