The African continent is only responsible for 2-3% of global carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources. But it is suffering alarmingly from the effects of the climate crisis, as reports from the UN and others show. On the positive side, Africa has enormous climate mitigation potential, in particular thanks to its tropical rainforests.
The Congo Basin rainforests in Central Africa are sometimes called the Earth’s second lungs (after the Amazon) because of their ability to store carbon. In addition to forest trees, the basin has the world’s largest tropical peatlands, discovered in 2017. Scientists estimate that these peatlands store carbon worth about 20 years’ worth of fossil fuel emissions from the United States. The Congo Basin is also rich in biodiversity and minerals.
As long as this strategically important and rich region is not destroyed, Africa can contribute to the fight against global climate change.
The rainforests and people of the Congo Basin face serious threats from global climate change and other human factors. Commercial logging, mining, extensive agriculture, infrastructure development, rapid urbanization, energy consumption and transnational wildlife poaching are among them.
Forgotten role of the humanities and social sciences
Academics and policy makers tend to regard the pure sciences as the only disciplines capable of offering solutions to ecological challenges. They sometimes overlook the role of the social sciences and humanities, including the arts and literature, in addressing climate change and environmental issues.
But that is changing, through emerging interdisciplinary fields, such as the environmental humanities. He uses sources such as literary and artistic texts. The field also borrows methods from disciplines such as communications, history, philosophy, political science, sociology, and anthropology.
My recent doctoral thesis (whose original abstract was published in French with the option of a Google translation into English) argues that literary texts and critical studies of these texts have a role to play in saving the basin of Congo.
Drawing on postcolonial ecocriticism and environmental literary activism, I examined a selection of novels, plays, and poems by writers from the Congo Basin.
Their lyrics portray or condemn climate and environmental concerns such as deforestation, youth climate activism, wildlife poaching, freshwater pollution, and unplanned urbanization. They also question practices such as environmental injustice and violations of the rights of local and indigenous populations. In short, literary texts portray climate and ecological issues in ways that make the issues more palpable and relatable.
I suggest that literature can serve as a call to climate action. It can indicate how individuals, communities and institutions are contributing to, mitigating or adapting to climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Literary texts are useful for environmental communication and have the ability to deal with complexity.
The authors whose works I studied were:
Athanasius Nsambu Nsahlai, Ekpe Inyang, Gaston-Paul Effa, Patrice Nganang and Osée Colins Koagne from Cameroon,
Étienne Goyémidé from the Central African Republic,
Assitou Ndinga and Henri Djombo from Congo-Brazzaville,
To Koli Jean Bofane of Congo-Kinshasa or the Democratic Republic of Congo and
Nadia Origo from Gabon.
I analyzed how their texts represent and respond to the climatic and ecological issues of the Congo Basin.
For example, the novels Cheval-roi by Effa, Temps de chien by Nganang and The Buffalo Rider by Nsahlai depict human-animal relationships. The novels Congo Inc.: The Testament of Bismarck by Bofane, The Silence of the Forest by Goyémidé and The Merchants of Sustainable Development by Ndinga promote the indigenous knowledge systems and practices of the Babinga and Ekonda peoples. They challenge the harmful aspects of neoliberal capitalism, globalization and sustainable development. Pieces like Inyang’s Water Na Life and Djombo’s Le Mal de terre deal respectively with the pollution of fresh water and disorderly urbanization.
Literary texts can contribute to solving these problems in many ways. They can raise environmental awareness and drive climate communication on various environmental issues.
One of the environmental problems of the Congo Basin is deforestation and its consequences for both man and nature. In 2020, increasing rates of primary forest loss were reported in the Congo Basin, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon topping the charts. This question is explored in plays such as The Hill Barbers by Ekpe Inyang and Le Cri de la forêt by Henri Djombo and Osée Koagne. The pieces identify the causes and suggest ways to curb deforestation.
Literature can also motivate people to fight climate change and amplify the work of activists. I argue that Congo Basin writers such as Inyang, Djombo, Koagne and Origo predicted the emergence of global youth climate activism. This activism is exemplified by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Remy Zahiga, among others.
These authors write about young African characters, like the child volunteers in the play Les Bénévoles de Djombo, who fight against climate change and environmental crimes. Literature therefore provides both inspiration and a means of communication for youth climate activism in the Congo Basin and far beyond.
Celebrating the connection between man and nature
Literary texts also remind people of their relationship with the rest of nature, including animals, rivers and the earth. Novels like those by Nsahlai, Effa, and Nganang illustrate human-animal entanglements. Pieces such as Water Na Life and Le Mal de terre highlight the entanglements of man-water and man-earth. They show how poor governance and ignorance of human-nature connections lead to ecological problems.
Literary texts not only point out the violations of human rights and the rights of nature, but they also describe the consequences of these violations.
Literature can also help uncover false assumptions and myths.
One of them is the colonial and racist idea of an Edenic Africa – the false image of an African nature devoid of any human presence. It is an idea that fuels green colonialism in Africa. And that underpins the much-contested model of fortress conservation in the Congo Basin. Keeping strongholds is about driving people out of their ancestral forests in the name of preserving nature.
If myths such as the Edenic Africa are identified and eliminated, conservationists can be more inclusive and respectful of local and indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems. Novels like Congo Inc. by Bofane, Le Silence de la forêt by Goyémidé and Les Marchands du développement durable by Ndinga are useful here. They highlight the knowledge and practices of the peoples who have inhabited the forests of the Congo Basin since time immemorial.
The global climate and environmental crisis is not just a crisis of capitalism and industrialization. It is also a cultural crisis.
For this reason, cultural metaphors and philosophical ideas such as the separation of humans from nature should be rejected. These ideas have long promoted human domination and exploitation of nature and animals.
Through film, music, and literature, people have come to construct an image of themselves as different and superior to the rest of nature. But literature can also celebrate our entanglement with nature and draw inspiration from cultures like those of the Congo Basin.
Very significantly, literature offers ways to communicate about complex issues such as the current global climate emergency. Together with other academic disciplines and efforts – political, scientific and technological – literature can therefore help to protect the biodiversity and people of the Congo Basin.
Kenneth Toah Nsah, expert in comparative literature and environmental humanities, University of Aarhus