The race to defuse Congo’s nuclear detonation 2022

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Congo’s nuclear, BOLOMBA TERRITORY, Democratic Republic of Congo — The parishioner approached the pastor after morning prayer to tell him she’d had a dream the night before — a premonition, really — that a White man would walk into their remote village soon and change their lives forever.

The arrival of professor Simon Lewis and his colleagues in Ikenge just months later would indeed upend this calm idyll tucked away in one of the world’s remaining rainforests.

The village — home to a few dozen families living in earthen houses ringed by fields of cassava — is exceptionally secluded. Reaching it requires journeying for at least a day in dugout canoes up charcoal-black tributaries, often while torrential thunderstorms crisscross overhead. Inge’s residents are familiar with the world beyond the forest, though they seldom interact with it.

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So when Lewis and his colleagues began talking in giddy, hushed tones about carbon and a substance called “tourbière” in French, Pastor Timothée Bombala sensed the premonition was coming true.

“They kept saying, ‘This is the biggest and deepest we have ever seen.’ They were very excited,” Bombala recalled of that momentous day in 2019. “They took many pieces of it with them.”

Mineral wealth and Congo’s nuclear

“And when they left, they told us not to disturb it,” he added. “ ‘Do not damage the swamp because there is great wealth there’ — that’s what one of them said to me.”

The “wealth” in question had the sound of veins of gold and ore to Bombala — and he wished it were so — but they instead referred to plain-old “potopoto,” or mud, in Lingala, the regional language.

And rather than wealth derived from extraction — common in Congo, which has been exploited of its vast natural resources by outsiders for well over a century at the cost of millions of Congolese lives — this mud, they were told, would generate wealth only if they left it in the ground.

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The “it,” after all, was not just potopoto, but peat, a slurry of very slowly decomposing organic matter and one of the terrestrial world’s densest stores of carbon. When disturbed, peatlands can release their stores in a short amount of time in what some who study them call a carbon bomb.

Lewis and his team were about to confirm a major scientific discovery: Ikenge sits in the midst of the largest swath of tropical peatland on the planet. People in Ikenge were thrilled because they thought peat might turn to profit much like Congo’s mineral wealth.

“It’s not something to dig up and sell, but explaining why can be a struggle,” said Lewis, a blond, bespectacled Briton affiliated with universities in Leeds and London who sees his work partly as pure science, and partly as activism on behalf of the environment and of the Congolese people. “People drinking river water don’t have the most basic thing — a water pump, a well. They want the benefit immediately.”

At around 56,000 square miles (about the size of Iowa) and more than 30 feet deep in places, the peatland Congo shares with its neighbor, the Republic of Congo, holds at least as much carbon as the whole world currently emits in three years of burning fossil fuels.

Some patches of the peatlands in Congo’s Central Basin have been accumulating and storing carbon since the late days of the Earth’s last major ice age, around 17,000 years ago.

Congo's nuclear detonation

Industrializing countries around the world — from Europe and the United States in past centuries to southeast Asia in the 21st century — drained vast areas of peatlands, drying them and releasing immense wafts of carbon dioxide as well as smaller quantities of nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. The mass conversion of peatland into farmland over the centuries is estimated to have released as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Congo wants what the rest of the world got from its peatlands: an economic development boost. The enormous Central African country is near rock-bottom on key development indicators, including life expectancy, access to education and electrification.

But herein lies one of the great paradoxes of our age: Industrialization has already irreversibly and harmfully changed our climate, and the countries responsible for most of those emissions are tasked by the United Nations with helping the rest of the world develop without repeating the mistakes of the past.

If Congo were to drain its pristine peatlands, it is near certain that hundreds of millions or even billions of tons of carbon dioxide would be emitted into the atmosphere.

A legacy of colonial exploitation

When the professor and the pastor met in the village, a gulf created by a traumatic history stood between them.

White Europeans have subjugated the Democratic Republic of Congo and undermined its development for more than a century. In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold II used a private militia to seize what is now Congo. They forced locals to harvest rubber and ivory, cutting off their hands if they came up short of quotas.

As many as 10 million Congolese died of exhaustion or disease or were killed outright by Leopold’s Force Publique in what some describe as a genocide. The riches derived from that brutal period, including the giant Royal Museum for Central Africa, are still visible in Brussels’ modern grandeur.

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