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Our boat motored toward a sprawling port in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we stared in silence at the scene on the shore.
Barefoot men were heaving giant logs up a steep, muddy riverbank. Nearby, crews on dozens of log rafts waited in the tangled weeds for a turn to unload. On the shore, forklifts with logs in their clutches snaked among a jumble of tree trunks that looked as if they’d been dropped from the sky.
We stepped off our boat to make sense of it all. But after so many days on the water we felt as if we were still bobbing, even while standing on solid ground.
I’m a climate reporter for The New York Times, and the port in Kinshasa was the end of a seven-day, 500-mile trip in March, down the Congo River and its tributaries, an account of which we published this month. I was there with photographer Ashley Gilbertson to explore the logging industry and its human toll in one of the most important old-growth rainforests in the world, which spreads across the Congo Basin. The huge forest and its carbon-trapping abilities are increasingly important to halting the warming of our planet as trees in the biggest old-growth rainforest, the Amazon, continue to be felled. Congolese officials are trying to rein in perilous, and often illegal, logging practices in the region.
In this part of the country, roads and airports are few. The river is the main transportation route and acts as a conveyor belt for logs going from forest to market. Companies sail barges of logs downstream to Kinshasa’s ports, but ordinary citizens working on their own also float logs by tying them together in a raft, sometimes with nothing more than mosquito netting. They live and sleep on the rafts during dangerous, weekslong journeys downriver that can result in injury or even death.
To understand the lives of these loggers and their haphazard trade, we needed to join them on the river. We rented what we were told was the best motorboat in the town of Mbandaka and hired two captains, both of whom knew the mechanics of the boat and could relieve each other after long shifts. Because so few big towns are situated along the river, refueling is complicated: We filled the small area below deck with plastic jerrycans of fuel, stocked up on bread and nuts and set sail.
When our boat sidled up to the rafts, people aboard them came to greet us. After we introduced ourselves as journalists and asked for their permission to board, Ashley hopped on the rafts, the arches of his bare feet rounding against the logs that shifted and spun in the current. Notoriously uncoordinated, I hung over the side of our boat to chat most of the time, notebook firmly in hand. Most of the people we talked to wanted the world to know about their plight, and told us that cutting trees was a matter of survival. Members of one crew angrily shooed us away, fearing repercussions if they were to speak about their mission.
On the river, we saw the toll of the logging industry: We passed ramshackle rafts, barely strung together, and met people whose fingers had been crushed or severed while trying to reel in logs that had broken free.
The people we encountered feared the violent storms that passed over the river, and all of them were frustrated over a particularly shallow stretch where the rafts often got stuck. The sandbars also stalled our speedboat so many times that we became accustomed to the sound of the hull scraping the riverbed.
Getting stuck so often damaged our power steering so severely that at one point the wheel popped off in the captain’s hands. A midriver switch to an outboard motor, which Ashley suggested had the horse power of a leaf blower, helped us putter along. One night, while we were still navigating a dizzying maze of sandbars, our captains did what many other logging crews must do when stranded: They called out for help toward what looked like an empty, forested shore.
A voice answered: It was a fisherman who knew the river well. He swam out to our boat, climbed aboard and guided us in the pitch blackness for hours to the nearest town.
That town, Bolobo, had no electricity, like every other town in which we docked. In another community, Loaka, children were crammed into two classrooms in a riverside schoolhouse built on stilts that pierced holes through the floor.
Traveling on the river, meeting the raft crews and sleeping in their communities helped us to understand that the short neglect and a lack of jobs drive ordinary people to take on the huge risks that come with cutting down these trees. Out on the Congo River, this reality was right in our faces.