Where Population Pressures Have Deadly Consequences

By: Alex Ashlock

With the world population now topping 7 billion, the November issue of National Geographic opens a window on a place where population pressures are having deadly consequences.

"The competition for finite resources has led to power grabs, the shredding of the bio-diversity... and the pitting of one ethnic group against another."

Robert Draper, reporter

Africa's Albertine Rift is a 920-mile crease or rift formed by shifting plate tectonics, where the countries of Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Burundi all meet.

It's the continent's most bio-diverse region, with highland forests, snow-capped mountains, savannas, great lakes and wetlands, populated with rare birds and fish not to mention lions, hippos and gorillas. Reporter Robert Draper wrote the piece and he told Here and Now the very richness of the area has led to scarcity.

"Plentiful rainfall, fertile volcanic soil. The fact that it is mainly at a high altitude, which has made it less susceptible to the spread of diseases. All of this has resulted in a lot of people showing up and a dense population. It now has the highest fertility rate on the continent and thus in the world. This has produced a strain on the land that is enormous. The competition for finite resources has led to power grabs, the shredding of the bio-diversity of the area and of course most notoriously...the formation of militias, the pitting of one ethnic group against another [through] mass rapes and genocides," he said.

"It's between a lake that is filled with pollutants, methane and CO2, and thus could erupt at any moment. To it's north is the volcano Nyiragongo, which has erupted and destroyed parts of the town. Any kind of chemical reaction between Lake Kivu and the volcano could kill more than a million residents. So it sits on a knife's edge in that respect. But even more so because there are these competing tribes there. You see militias wandering the streets. You see soldiers who haven't been paid by the government looking to make money anyway they can. And you see this seemingly endless procession of bicycles with huge bags of charcoal of men women and children, literally just emptying out the forest."

"It's a central problem to the area that the human population pressures have not simply forced wildlife off the land, it's led to the wholesale slaughter of wildlife. I went to Virunga National Park which is the oldest park in all of Africa. It's situated in the eastern Congo, a very famous place, rich with hippos, elephants, lions, tigers, gorillas, not anymore however, because militias have taken over the area. Previous to that soldiers who had been cut loose at least financially by the government wandered the area. And there were whole swaths of the park where hippos had been massacred by both by hungry soldiers and poachers who were trying to make money by selling them on the open market. So really a once great park has become a war zone and it's a tragic thing to see. We stayed at the park headquarters which was riddled with bullets. All the windows had been shot through. There's this ongoing battle between the rangers trying to take control of the park and the indigenous Mai Mai militia groups. And of course the immediate casualty is the wildlife population which has all but ceased to exist in a legendary park."

"Let's not sugar-coat the fact that Rwanda's political reforms are far complete and that Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, does not brook dissent. Journalists are put in jail for asking the wrong questions. Having said that, there's no denying as well the reforms that have taken place there. It's a very safe place. You see women jogging in the streets in the morning. People can be imprisoned for cutting down a single tree much less wiping out the forest. There's no class warfare, there are no mass rapes. Essentially all those problems have been exported unfortunately westward across the border into the Congo. And instead Rwanda is now leading the way in the Albertine rift region to confront the matter of population pressures, in particular the high fertility rate among young women, and it is doing that with education, worker training programs and contraception."

This program aired on December 1, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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