By Robert Draper
Robert Draper is a contributing writer for National Geographic magazine and author of “Rift in Paradise” from the new “7 Billion: How your world will change” app for iPad, available for free from the App Store.
I was recently on a radio program to discuss my story in the November issue of National Geographic on the Albertine Rift (“Rift in Paradise”), and a woman called in to ask whether the fretfulness over a world of seven billion inhabitants wasn’t a bit off-target. “Isn’t the problem really one of over-copulation, not over-population?” she asked.
My answer was that it’s probably not the best public policy to be deciding who can be sexually active and who cannot. Having said that, it’s impossible to overlook the correlation between poverty and alarmingly high fertility rates. Certainly that’s the case in the Albertine Rift, where competition for land and other scarce resources is exacerbated by one of the world’s highest fertility rates. How does a government tell its people to curb its reproductive habits? The answer is that it’s not easy—but then leadership never is.
Let’s stipulate that Washington, DC has no corner on political courage. The surest way to win votes in America is to promise the public that you’ll lower their taxes. In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, it’s to vow that you’ll give them access to more land. That there’s no more land in the Albertine Rift to parcel out hardly inhibits politicians from pitting one ethnic group against another, creating a climate where militia warfare, genocides and mass rapes essentially substitute for clear-headed social planning.
Ironically, it’s in post-genocide Rwanda where the (admittedly far from perfect) Kagame administration is addressing its overpopulation crisis with aggressive education, contraception programs and worker retraining. Uganda, in contrast, lags well behind Rwanda: its leaders openly extol the nationalistic virtues of a burgeoning population and encourage the locals to squat on and ultimately devastate the nation’s forest reserves.
And yet Uganda is idyllic compared to the eastern DRC, a clotted tangle of unpaved roads, roving militia gangs, an unending procession of bicycles bearing huge bags of charcoal from the country’s rapidly diminishing forests, parklands that resemble war zones and an overall sense that the worst could happen at any moment. To travel across the border from the eastern Congo to Uganda, as I did one morning, is to leave behind a chaotic dystopia for the sudden Technicolor of a land where the streets are paved, wildlife is everywhere in evidence and the possibility of a well-ordered future is entirely foreseeable.
The difference between these three countries is almost entirely explained by leadership, or the absence of same. Rwanda’s Kagame is no Nelson Mandela, but he actively seeks a sustainable outcome for his tattered nation. Uganda’s Musevini, in turn, is no Kagame, but he has used his power to give his country economic hope. Then we have the DRC’s Kabila—who, like every other Congolese leader since the dictator Mobutu was propped up by the CIA in 1960—has come to regard the mineral-rich country as his candy store and has done literally nothing to better the lives of his compatriots today, much less plan for tomorrow. Its hydroelectric potential is such that the eastern Congo could be powering most of the entire continent and in the process transforming its own economy. But there’s neither vision nor will for such an ambitious undertaking in the DRC.
Overpopulation is the result of socioeconomics, culture, geography and a host of other factors. But it is the failure of leadership that makes this tragedy so infuriating.