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On the Congo River, Following a Logger’s Dangerous Journey

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Our boat ran towards the vast harbor of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, quietly gazing at the coastal scenery.

A barefoot man piled up huge logs on a steep, muddy riverbank. Nearby, a crew member on dozens of log rafts was waiting for their turn to unload in the intertwined weeds. On the beach, a forklift that grabbed a log meandered in a jumble of tree trunks that looked as if they had been dropped from the sky.

We got off the boat to understand it all. But after spending days on the water, we still felt like Bob, even though we were standing on solid ground.

I’m a climate reporter for the New York Times. The port of Kinshasa was the end of a seven-day, 500-mile journey down the Congo River and its tributaries in March. We released this this month. I worked with photographer Ashley Gilbertson to investigate the logging industry and its human casualties, one of the world’s most important primeval forests in the Congo Basin. As the largest primeval forest, the Amazon trees, continue to be logged, huge forests and their ability to capture carbon are becoming increasingly important in stopping global warming. Congolese authorities are trying to curb dangerous and often illegal logging practices in the area.

There are few roads and airports in this part of the country. The river is the main transportation route and acts as a conveyor belt for logs from the forest to the market. Companies sail the log barges downstream to the port of Kinshasa, but even the general public, who work on their own, sometimes just use mosquito nets to connect the logs to the raft and float them. They live and sleep on rafts during dangerous weeks of downstream travel that can lead to injury and death.

To understand the lives of these loggers and their unplanned deals, we needed to join them in the river. We hired two captains, renting what was said to be the best motorboat in the town of Mbandaka. Both knew how the ship worked and were able to relieve each other after a long shift. Refueling is complicated because there are few large towns along the river. We filled a small area under the deck with plastic jerrycan fuel, stuffed it with bread and nuts, and set sail.

As our boat snuggled up to the raft, the people on them came to pick us up. Ashley jumped on the raft after we introduced ourselves as journalists and asked for permission to board. The arch of his bare feet rounded towards a log that moved and rotated in the stream. Not infamously tuned, I hung on the side of the boat and most of the time chatted with my notebook firmly in my hand. Most of the people we talked to wanted the world to know about their plight and told us that cutting trees is a matter of survival. One crew member was angry and drove us away for fear of the consequences of having them talk about their mission.

In the river, we witnessed the sacrifice of the logging industry. We passed by a fragile hood and met people who were barely spliced ​​together and whose fingers were crushed or cut in an attempt to wind up a broken log.

The people we met were afraid of intense storms across the river, and all of them were frustrated, especially in the shallow areas where squids often get stuck. Sandbars also stalled our speedboats many times, so we got used to the sound of the hull rubbing the riverbed.

When stuck, the power steering was badly damaged and at some point the wheel popped into the captain’s hand. My driver switch to the outboard motor, which Ashley suggested had the horsepower of a leaf blower, helped us move the putter. One night, while we were still navigating a dazzling sandbar maze, the captain did what many other logging workers had to do when they got stuck.

The voice came back: It was the fishermen who knew the river very well. He swam into our boat and took us to the nearest town for hours in total darkness.

That town, Borobo, did not have electricity, like all the other towns we docked with. In another community, Loaka, children were packed into two classrooms in a riverside school building built on stanchions with holes in the floor.

Traveling rivers, meeting raft crews, and sleeping in their communities understand that government negligence and lack of work pose a great risk to the general public with logging these trees. It was useful for. Out on the Congo River, this reality was right on our face.

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