This is a project about bushmeat: the hunting of wild meat in the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, for our purposes specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo. The wild meat hunted from Congolese forests includes some of our closest relatives; the chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. It is being eaten by desperately poor people, but increasingly by the comparatively wealthy and powerful and a growing expatriate market, for whom the choicest and most prestigious cuts are reserved. In a region where a lot of animal husbandry is rendered difficult or impossible by insects like the tsetse fly and the parasites they carry, bushmeat is often the only meat available.
When we talk about the DRC we talk about a region of Africa that was claimed by King Leopold of Belgium in the late 1800's. It's a vast landmass, drained by the Congo River, drawn and defined by Colonial Europe's interests in minerals, timber, gold, rubber and slaves. Congo has a long and complex history, but for much of the last hundred and fifty years that history has been one of subjugation by one tyrant or another. First came Leopold, whose brutality in securing rubber harvests to feed industrial needs outraged the world. His administrators enforced strict quotas for rubber, and people were essentially enslaved to provide it. Rebels were punished by having their hands cut off. Enforcers were sent into the forests to jack up rubber output, and were issued a bounty for each severed rebel hand that they collected. This led to a wholesale chopping of hands, and to boats floating Congo's turgid rivers loaded with piles of them, smoked, from rebel and otherwise, hands cut from anyone who the enforcers came across.
After independence in the 1960's, Congo became a battleground for Cold War wrangling. The CIA and the remnants of the Belgian colonial administration participated in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first freely elected postcolonial leader, and installed in his absence Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu. Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, changed the country's name to Zaire, and proceeded to pillage and plunder under the protective hand of Western power for nearly forty years.
Then came the Rwandan genocide of the early 90's. After nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by the Hutu population and extremist militias known as the Interahamwe, Hutu refugees poured into Eastern Zaire, hotly pursued by the victorious (and mostly Tutsi) Rwandan army. The Interahamwe hid among the refugee population as they fled through the deep forests. The pursuit essentially became an invasion, and the Rwandans pushed their way across the heartland of the country all the way to the east, where an ailing Mobutu saw the end coming and fled to Europe. The Rwandans installed Laurent Kabila, a failed quasi-socialist ex-guerrilla leader (who had endlessly frustrated Che Guevara during the latter's brief adventure in Congo in the mid 1960's) as president. The name of the country was changed to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was the point at which Congo dissolved into total war.
The war in Congo in the decade between 1995 and 2005 is almost unknown in the west, but it killed somewhere near ten million people, and involved the armies of at least ten African countries, as well as UN forces and irregulars. During this period of near total chaos, the mechanisms of the contemporary exploitation of Congolese lands and peoples took firm root. Soldiers learned what to get, how to get it, and where to sell it. The tradition of cutting hands for punishment of deeds both real and imagined returned with a vengeance.A high-technology boom in the developed world brought interested parties calling for the minerals that the militias and the armies involved in the conflict worked eagerly to provide.
Those interests spanned the global and the local; the rare metals mined in wildcat pits in Eastern Congo are hauled through the forests to roadways where planes can land. They take on cargo destined for high-technology assembly lines in South and East Asia and in the West. Just as in the time of Leopold, the people doing the work are some of the most exploited on earth: most options of money-making activity in the forests and diggings of Eastern Congo involve the reaping of natural capital, whether that's 500 year old trees or ancient soils. A quicker return is brought hunting meat in the forest to sell to the throngs cutting the trees and hammering feverishly at the rocks. Those who are unwilling to work, who cross the militias or who find themselves otherwise in the way face dire fates, especially the women. The rate of rape in Congo has become the highest in the world, and the brutality associated with rape as a strategy of war has affected hundreds of thousands of women across the region.
Previously a subsistence activity, the bushmeat trade is now big business: for meat, medicine and prestige, and ultimately for the point where those three meet. There are a lot of species that are taken for bushmeat purposes, and a lot of reasons and beliefs inform their taking, but this at least is undeniable: the larger the animal, the more meat on the bone. Among the largest animals in the region are our primate relatives, the chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos. Perhaps the choicest cuts of the primate are the hands: highly prized, they show up smoked in markets, stewed in restaurants, and hidden in luggage and cargo seized in international airports and import terminals. Populations of the large apes are dwindling fast. One thing about bushmeat is sure: as we eat our way through the world's wild forests, the extinctions that attend will be grim medals hung around the necks of exploiters and survivors alike.
The pressure of population and culture on wild lands is an ever-transformative prospect. The technologies of communication and entertainment that we enjoy in the rich countries are tied directly to the dismantling of global forests and wildlands, and nowhere is that more true than in Congo. Rare minerals like cassiterite or coltan, found under the ancient forest soils of the Congo basin, are essential to digital communications devices. Their mining is controlled largely now by armed columns of irregular militias, although the national army takes its share of the wealth as well. The companies that buy the minerals to incorporate into their devices, as well as the consumers that use those devices, have traditionally turned blind eyes to the issue. If we find ourselves feeling that we can't live without our smartphones and game consoles, we should get comfortable with our role as teeth in the mouth of economics that is scraping Congo bare.
The severed hand is a thing from colonial history that has crawled through the minds of humans into the 21st century. Hold it in your hands and you lose your grip on where and what you are. We are primates, eating primates, and we are societies, eating other societies. We see what others have and covet it. The mind of the individual within a cultural milieu follows the rules of that milieu to guide it in determining what is family, what is enemy, and who is meat. The hand grasps. The knife disarticulates the architecture of tendons and carpals. The tool, cooked, becomes food. We humans are the only animals that cook our food.
We are curious here about the extent to which human ideas and desires and technologies move and consume like invaders. They travel through landscapes like a kind of virus, infecting and superseding the bodies that they encounter. They work both deep within and out on the fringe of global societies based on law and order, creating new needs that will be filled by participants seeking advantage, income, and influence. They take control of ecological systems and turn them to their benefit. They are invading species, self-replicating and self-justifying concepts, taking advantage of underexploited resources and regions within their grasp. What Leopold began with his greed for rubber, we continue today with our pursuit of high-tech communications. It's really the same thing.
Icon, archetype, atavism, the severed hand is a symbol of the base level of human impulses towards acquisition. It represents the process by which humans transform the life of the world into abstract quanta fit for consumption. Each is a unit, measurable as such or by its weight as meat. The weight it has as an idea is enormous, so big that it's hard to see. Let's look now. Look closely and look hard.