Deep in the jungle, scientists explore the links between the Congo and climate change

The town of Yangambi, about 60 miles west of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s much larger city, Kisangani, sits on a broad plain by the Congo River. When explorer Henry Morton Stanley canoed up the Congo in 1882 — laying the groundwork for Belgium’s King Leopold II to acquire what became the Congo Free State as his personal real estate — a similarly flat parcel attracted his attention. He noted approvingly of its potential for advancing the colonial mission: “a fine field for the future agriculturist.” Belgian colonists indeed cultivated King Leopold’s slave state. And they built field stations for studying how to increase productivity of their export goods. At Yangambi they tinkered with improving rubber, an early economic mainstay. By the mid–20th century the colonial government had transformed the site into Africa’s leading institute for scientific research on agriculture and forestry, then called INEAC, the Institut National pour l’étude Agronomique du Congo Belge (today known as INERA, or Institut National pour l’étude et la Recherche Agronomique). A staff of 12,000, including several hundred scientists and technicians, toiled in scores of stately brick buildings and tended an experimental plantation the size of Washington, D.C., which developed internationally important varieties of oil palm, rice and Yangambi km. 5, a disease-resistant banana cultivar. A forest reserve 10 times larger encircled the busy complex. It’s here that two researchers are working on separate projects to try to better understand how the Congo rainforest, second in size only to the Amazon, will respond to climate change — and in turn, impact climate change through possible changes to the forest’s ability to store carbon. Not Even a Frog Can Swim There The site’s not what it once was. Today, the facility runs on a fraction of the budget it had last century, and a very small Congolese staff works to preserve what it can from the past — such as a huge collection of dried plant specimens at the site — and to investigate methods for improving farming and forestry. INEAC’s research plots have nearly all reverted to forest. For the most part, its laboratories … Continue reading Deep in the jungle, scientists explore the links between the Congo and climate change