Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:42 PM on Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Message from the Congo tailored for Alaska


You shouldn't have to go all the way to the Congo to fully appreciate being an Alaska resident of the Kachemak Bay watershed, but a trip deep into the heart of Africa made clear some important values that we enjoy and should protect.

It is often said that we get the kind of governance we deserve. This implies that each of us can use the good educational foundation that we have been given and be wise about whom we elect and then diligent in oversight of those governing us. The Congo example shows Alaskans what happens when things go very wrong. It also shows us how difficult it can be to restore values of integrity and wholeness of natural systems once they are lost.

Drop a plumb line through the center of the earth from the end of the Spit and you come out south of Cape Town; Alaska's antipodes is Africa. Parallels with the world's largest francophone country may seem a stretch until one considers the vast amount of wilderness there. The Congo is about twice the size of Alaska. We both profit from the presence of charismatic mega fauna; elephants and bears, lions and moose, zebra and caribou, cheetah and wolves and the curious list continues

The Congo's great wealth in natural resources, like our own, causes much of the rest of the world to seek access to them. Their ivory in the colonial era and more recently diamonds, copper and coltan (for the electronics industry) compares to our gold rush era with salmon, timber and oil. Much of the Congo's wealth, like our own, is as yet unexploited.

What happens as that extraction proceeds is where the parallels are most insightful.

My observations were gleaned after a month as an invited participant in international meetings where the participants were challenged with creating a master plan with a $5 million grant from the European Union for the recovery of the war torn Upemba and Kundelungu National Parks which cover l2,000 square miles. Tragically these hot spots of biodiversity, once populated with teeming herds of animals have been rendered nearly barren during the years of lawlessness and government corruption.

Though peace came to the region a few years ago there remain outlaw groups at large in the parks — like the Mai Mai who previously over ran and burned the Ranger Station where I stayed after our workshops in Lubumbashi. The murders of 30 in a gun battle two ridges away from our ridge top encampment lent more than a little tension as we tried to translate workshop theory to on-the-ground reality.

This was a far cry from working with the director of Alaska State Parks as chair of the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizens Advisory Board when we faced some acrimonious issues but happily Kalashnikov machine guns were not part of that picture.

Alaskans have the great good fortune of not only abundant land, animals and resources, but also a well informed electorate within a functional political system that allows and encourages us to protect our treasures while using them wisely. The Congo, by contrast, has a history of self-enrichment of a few at the expense of the impoverishment of the masses and depletion of the animals.

I saw first-hand an assortment of crippling problems that we experience with differences only in degree and temperature. There, small numbers of people profit from removing from the public domain charismatic mega fauna like elephants and lions. Some few Alaskans insist on shooting bears and wolves from the air in order to encourage more moose for a few hunters. This differs from the Congo only in matters of scale and location. Shooting rhinos for the horn and leaving the animal to rot parallels the insistence of a few hunters in shooting brown bears in the McNeil River Brown Bear Refuge.

The Game Board's failure to represent the majority of Alaskans has unhappy parallels in the Congo. The piecemeal eradication of higher values and principles there and here hurts all of us. With everything to gain by taking the high road, Alaskans can and should protect the treasure that belongs to each of us.

The rush for the extraction of our natural resources led to years of abuse of our fisheries, timber, mineral and cultural resources. Was the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge created for the oil companies to make even greater profits as we export Alaska oil to Asia? Does is make sense to sacrifice salmon streams near Tyonek to strip mine coal for more Chinese smokestack pollution? Why does our governor want to give big oil big tax breaks?

As we look back at what led up to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in order to learn from it, let us not forget the criminal complicity of legislators with oil companies. Let us be wary of the "fox in the henhouse" syndrome when we see former state regulators move into leadership of resource extractive positions and vice versa.

The Congo is faced with trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We are faced with trying to keep Humpty Dumpty from falling off the wall in the first place. It remains to be seen if they can re-assemble the broken parts, but it is clear that we do not have to go down the difficult if not impossible task of trying to repair damaged ecosystems or animal populations once disrupted.

Exxon Valdez, for example, could have easily been prevented if it had not been for the complicity of the oil company and elected officials that undermined safeguards. Dr. Ricky Ott in her book, "Not One Drop," describes these details.

Paying attention to the proper functioning of our executive, legislative and judicial functions is where that educated electorate is best positioned to keep Alaska as great as it is. The world is watching the Congo and Alaska on opposite sides of the world but with similar opportunities before them.

Michael McBride is a co-founder of Bateleurs, "Volunteer Pilots flying for Conservation in Africa," a Master Guide and the first Alaskan elected to the Smithsonian Institute's National Board. He lives in China Poot Bay. Readers can follow the African Congo Blog at http://michaelpetermcbride.blogspot.com/.