I want to start by echoing the Ambassador’s remarks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is deplorable. And it is a reminder that acts of military aggression against peaceful civilians are wrong — whether in Eastern Europe or in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Since I arrived in Kinshasa last Saturday, I met with President Tshisekedi and Vice Prime Minister for Environment Bazaiba, as well as the Vice Minister of Health, members of Civil Society and the press. I discussed with them the need to continue to stamp out government corruption, conserve biodiversity and nature, and get vaccine shots in arms. I also visited a sanctuary for endangered Bonobos, a type of great ape found only here in the DRC.
Then I traveled to Virunga National Park. While there, we honored the fallen Park Rangers who have died defending the park and its surrounding communities and met with some of their widows, who have started to sell clothing and decorative products to support themselves and their families. I also saw the development projects around the Park being funded by USAID — including a power plant that provides affordable energy to the hundreds of new businesses starting there — and a new industrial park for sustainable agriculture. Wildlife in the park once poached to near extinction — elephants and the world famous mountain gorillas — are now coming back — and we saw herds of elephants, hippos and water buffalos thriving. The Virunga National Park is one of the most biodiverse places in the world — an explosion of biodiversity. The rangers defending the park have equipment and are trained using funds provided by the State Department.
I also saw first-hand the devastating toll that armed conflict by rebels around the park — including ISIS-DRC — continues to take on the communities near Virunga. I heard stories about the wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and human trafficking perpetrated by these insurgent groups and I saw areas of the Park where they hide in the rain forest waiting to poach and kill again.
Finally, today I arrived in Goma, a bustling city of 3 million near the border of the DRC and Uganda. I visited a state-of-the-art lab where they are detecting and fighting infectious diseases here like Ebola and COVID. I then met courageous survivors in a women’s support center and hospital run by Heal Africa where they treat women who need specialized health care or treatment following rape and other forms of gender violence. I sang with them and their children — they were resilient and trying to make a better life for themselves after tragedy. And I toured a school with a special environmental education program developed by a Mandela Scholar and funded by the U.S. Embassy here, where the children learn about the importance of clean air, clean water, and biodiversity.
We donated some books, planted trees, and sang and danced together. Their enthusiasm and joy for learning were infectious — in a good way.
From these experiences I drew three lessons.
First, preserving the environment is as much about people and communities as it is about nature. I have seen and heard the stories of the people in and around Virunga National Park who are working hard and sacrificing to save this incredible world treasure — it is the Earth’s first lung (not the Amazon) due to its massive carbon storage. Indeed, leaders here see themselves as climate solutions country. But illegal wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, Illegal fishing, and mining and all their associated violence are still harming this place — and they would not exist but for the corruption in the system here. I want to encourage the government of the DRC to continue to clean house and get rid of the scourge of corruption so that the natural wonders of this country will be preserved.
Second, if our joint efforts with the DRC leadership to fight the endemic corruption in the system here, it will create good jobs and new opportunities. This will in turn give rise to an inclusive and sustainable economy that can provide prosperity for this and future generations of Congolese.
Finally, I saw that by preserving the environment, protecting public health, and creating prosperity, can bring peace to this region. Many of the armed insurgent group members would lay down their weapons if they had a better alternative — a good job that will last. Peace today is what the Eastern DRC really needs to have a brighter future. And there is so much potential for a bright future — I saw that future in the eyes of the school children I met here.
With the leadership of Ambassador Mike Hammer here in the DRC, the U.S. Government and the people of the U.S. are working now to build a Privileged Partnership for Peace, Prosperity and Preservation of the Environment here. And that is good news for the DRC, the U.S., and the world.