Fiscal mismanagement of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, veterans facing sub-standard care, miles of red tape and worse, the collapse of our national park system due to budget shortfalls, sub-contractor scandals in Iraq, ENRON, and a host of other financial follies are the subtext for a festering scandal in Africa which will make Iraq and ENRON look like small potatoes when the figures are added up---if ever. I hope Representative John Murtha (D-PA) gets a copy of this OpEd before he holds hearings on the Walter Reed Scandal. $73,000,000 in USAID funding is vanishing into a program called the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) with little or no accountability from conservation organizations. This does not take into account the over $1 billion allocated by USAID alone for Africa. Conservation programs, staffed largely by British nationals, are taking American generosity for a joyride in the heart of darkness. Our veterans are paying the price; our local forestry programs are paying the price; and our national parks are disintegrating while we gleefully support “environmental” programs in Africa that are benefiting no one except the fat cat NGO employees who are living high off the hog on our tax dollars. And we thought keeping track of Katrina funding was a nightmare.
Budget Numbers for Landscape Projects in DRC (Weidemann Report)
Having just returned from a self-funded trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo where my video record of the abuses was stolen by a “conservationist,” I can tell you that we are not only wasting colossal amounts of money in DRC, but we are also contributing mightily to the image of post-colonial abuse of the indigenous population there.
The primary goal of my visit was to examine a project, largely funded by USAID, with money filtered through Union of Associations for the Conservation of Gorillas and Community Development of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (UGADEC), CARPE, Conservation International, Pfizer Company and a host of conservation organizations whom Congress should sort out. The story of conservation interests abusing indigenous populations has been reported previously by World Watch Institute, but has been ignored. Perhaps our budget shortfalls here in the United States will be enough to make Congress take a critical look at these African programs.
In 2004, World Watch Institute published a document that made a ripple, but was largely ignored by mainstream media. Author Mac Chapin wrote that the big three conservation organizations, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and the Nature Conservancy, "had become extremely large and wealthy in a short period of time; and they were promoting global approaches to conservation that have evoked a number of questions-and complaints-from local communities, national NGOs and human rights activists."
In the past two years, first hand accounts of abuses in DRC have surfaced on my desk and seemed more like film noir accounts of Mafia campaigns than the antics of sandal-footed conservationists. Big media won't go there. CNN and Anderson Cooper got as far as hell-on-earth Goma and high-tailed it back for home. While he was at it, Cooper promoted the agendas of some of the very groups that need to be put under a fiscal microscope by Congress
The eyes of the Congolese people are watching. Take a good look at the photos that are posted here. Ask yourself what the women and children in the marketplace near Lubero are thinking about the Mzungus (white people) who are photographing them. Why is the bicycle abandoned in the stream? The boy who was pushing it through the water fled in terror, abandoning his most valuable possession in the rushing waters, because the white people he encountered on the road frightened him. The photo of the bicycle in the stream says everything about our failed foreign aid programs DRC.
The United States has billions of dollars vanishing into Africa. You would think the villagers in Congo would be happy to see us.
America should be helping these people. Social indicators for the DRC are a mess. Infant and child (under five years of age) mortality rates are 126 and 212 per 1,000 live births; one in thirteen Congolese women will die in childbirth; over a million are living with HIV; and life expectancy is somewhere between 42 and 50 years of age, depending upon which statistics you want to believe. The term "violation of human rights" is a non-sequitur, rape is widespread in the eastern regions, especially Kivu Province, and British mercenaries are arming starving villagers, dubbing them "conservationists," and adding them to the already volatile mix of guns and militia. Meanwhile, the United Nations Mission to the Congo (MONUC) tries to keep the peace. At the same time, A British “conservationist” told me of his plans to request funds for unmanned surveillance aircraft from USAID. Congressman Murtha, I met you while I was working on the Coleen Rowley for Congress campaign. I hope you will not allow this guy to get drone aircraft from USAID.
MONUC IN Virunga Park
A stop at the "NGO store" in Goma was a must before pointing the rented Land Cruiser 4x4 north on the only major highway in eastern DRC that marked the beginning of my journey. The goal was to visit the Ranger stations of Rwindi and Rumangabo in Virunga before driving into an area where millions of United States tax dollars have gone to better the lives of poor African villagers. I wanted to see with my own eyes whether the fancy web sites reflected the truth of the matter or were illusions crafted from the smoke and mirrors of public relations and fundraising schemes. Public Relations 101 teaches that nothing sells better than animals and orphans to gullible donors. A close look at the trifecta of conservation fundraising: orphans, Africa and gorillas, was mandatory to establish a baseline.
But first, back to the NGO store. I was expecting to pick up a cheap sleeping bag, tent and some rice and beans. I certainly found those items, but what was an absolute mind-blower was the amount of merchandise available in the two level warehouse. The selection would put Super Wal-Mart out of business. Need a vintage bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne-got it. Bottles of every liquor imaginable lined shelf after shelf, better to supply the notorious weekend parties at the NGO compounds. Need baby toys? Did they have baby toys! Flashing LCDs promote fancy diversions for the sons and daughters of the muzungas. Plenty of kiddie games from Disney lined the shelves. Welcome to the Magic Kingdom, Africa!
Feeling flabby, out of shape and out of sorts? There was enough equipment on display to outfit a complete gym. I own a YMCA membership and know what I am talking about. I tried out the bench press. Not bad. Generators (OK, so that is not so unusual-this is the third world after all), DJ equipment for those weekend parties, disco balls, rubber kayaks (hope Lake Kivu doesn't overturn and release all of that methane while you are out there paddling). For the gourmet cook in all of us-capers, exotic spices, fine cooking sherry, and 60 inch plasma televisions to watch your favorite DVDs while you sample that fine cooking-well you get the picture. The next time you hear about the hard life conservationists and aid workers have in Africa, remember the NGO store. Also remember that salaries are most likely included in "program expenses" when you look up your favorite charity on one of the charity search engines. Maybe some of our vets would put this equipment to better use, Congressman Murtha.
Village markets are a stark contrast to the NGO store.
Forget conservation in the Virungas. It is a failed policy and we have no more business pumping money into the pockets of well-heeled conservationists than we do sending any more troops to Iraq. We screwed up. Face it. Get over it. Take care of the humanitarian problems and perhaps the people won't need to eat every animal in the park. Kick out the foreign nationals and allow the Congolese to solve their own problems. The gorillas will survive, because the Congolese officials realize their value.
The extent of the ivory trade is another indicator of the triumph of corruption and the failure of conservation. Marc Kauffman of the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/26/AR2007022600932.html writes: "an international effort to halt the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory tusks has all but collapsed in most of Africa, leaving officials and advocates alarmed about the survival of the species. A study released yesterday estimates that as many as 23,000 of the animals were slaughtered last year alone."