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After achieving independence in 1960, the French region of Middle Congo became the Republic of the Congo. In 1990, the country discarded 25 years of Marxism in favor of democracy. Seven years later, a Marxist-led rebellion overturned the democratic government, setting off a period of civil unrest that ended only in 2003 when a tenuous peace was declared. International groups have continued to pressure the government over human rights violations. Once a major exporter of oil, Congolese reserves have declined. Other natural resources include timber, potash, lead, zinc, uranium, copper, phosphates, gold, magnesium, natural gas, and hydropower.
With a per capita income of only $700, the Congo is the eighth poorest country in the world. Around 37 percent of the people are severely undernourished. Less than one percent of the land is arable, and agriculture provides for only 6.7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While industry accounts for 62.4 percent GDP, Congolese industries vary from village handicrafts to sophisticated oil companies. The government sector is overstaffed, draining revenue away from essential services. Since the 1980s, petroleum reserves have steadily declined, and oil earnings have been used to pay off huge government loans. The government turned to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for help and applied for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. In March 2006, the World Bank approved a $2.9 billion debt relief package contingent on the eradication of corruption in state-run oil companies.
In addition to a 169-kilometer stretch bordering the South Atlantic Ocean, the Congo is bordered by Angola, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gabon. The terrain of the Congo is generally flat with a coastal plain and a central plateau that give way to southern and northern basins. The highest point in the country is only 903 meters at Mount Berongou. The climate is tropical. The rainy season from March to June is followed by a five-month dry season. Temperatures and humidity are consistently high and are known to be particularly enervating in the section that strides the Equator. Flooding is common during the rainy season.
Like many of the poorest African nations, the Congo produces a social and physical environment conducive to disease. The population of 3,700,000 suffers from an HIV/AIDS rate of 4.9 percent. Some 90,000 Congolese have contracted HIV/AIDS, which has killed 9,700 people since 2003. The people of the Congo also have a very high risk of contracting food and waterborne diseases, because only 46 percent overall and 17 percent of rural residents have sustained access to safe drinking water, and only 9 percent overall and 2 percent of rural residents have access to improved sanitation. Common diseases include those borne by food and water such as bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever and malaria, a vectorborne disease. High incidences of disease have led to low life expectancy (52.8 years) and growth rates (2.6 percent) and high infant mortality (85.29 deaths per 1,000 live births) and death rates (12.93 percent per 1,000 population).
On the average, Congolese women give birth to 6.07 children. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Reports rank the Congo 142 of 232 countries on overall quality of life issues. Approximately 70 percent of Congolese live in either Brazzaville or Poine-Noire or along the rail line that connects the two cities. In these areas, the Congo is experiencing air pollution from vehicle emissions. Between 1980 and 2002, carbon dioxide emissions tripled. Water is polluted from the dumping of raw sewage. Deforestation has occurred as trees are cut or burned for agricultural use and as an energy sources. The government has protected 6.5 percent of land area covering around 1.5 million hectares. Of 450 mammal species identified in the Congo, 40 are endangered, as are 28 of 345 bird species. In 2006, scientists at Yale University ranked the Congo 112 of 132 countries on environmental performance, roughly in line with the comparable income and geographic groups. The overall score was reduced by the poor showing in environmental health.
In 1991, the Congo passed the Law of the Environment, creating the Ministry of Environment and instituting the National Environmental Action Plan. Major projects targeted rural development and conservation of natural resources. The government established protected areas that included the closed forest of Nouabale-Ndoki, the community reserve at Lake Tele, a sanctuary of savannah and gallery forest at Lefini-South, and the reinforced mixed gallery forest of the Condouati Reserve.
The Republic of the Congo participates in the following international agreements on the environment: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Ozone Layer Protection, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands. The Law of the Sea agreement has been signed but was never ratified.
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Valentine Udoh James, Africa’s Ecology: Sustaining the Biological and Environmental Diversity of A Continent (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1993).