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Cal student works to slow exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Dan Fahey doesn’t visit Virunga National Park for the dramatic scenery. Although this stunning setting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa, was once known mainly for its active volcanoes and abundant wildlife, the park is now home to rebel groups and refugees in one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries.

Forty-year-old Fahey, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, travels here to help explore how this land is being ravaged to fuel the deadliest conflict since World War II. “They’re one of the poorest countries on earth because their resources are being exploited,” Fahey says. “When you enter Congo from Uganda or Rwanda, it’s like entering a different Africa — there is no electricity, the roads are terrible, and the poverty is more extreme.”

Fahey’s experience as a Navy veteran during the Gulf War (he was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector) eventually led him to Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he wrote his thesis on the environmental consequences of war. Fahey was particularly struck by the disparity of the attention paid to wars in Europe and the Middle East versus those in Africa. Even within Africa, he notes, the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is often overlooked.

Fahey’s work focuses on the region’s troubles since the beginning of the First Congo War in 1996, when the government was overthrown in a coup supported largely by forces from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Those countries subsequently masterminded the Second Congo War — which involved five other foreign nations and more than twenty different armed groups. The conflict continues to exploit Congo’s rich natural resources, particularly its gold.

While many people have done research in Uganda, few have done so in Congo because of the heightened danger.

To conduct his fieldwork, Fahey relies on a companion known as a “fixer” — equal parts translator, research assistant, and facilitator — to help him gain entrée into Congolese society. He eschews the SUVs favored by expats, instead hurtling down roads on the back of a motorcycle or in a car driven by a local. Fahey once unknowingly rode in a car with a militia leader. “My fixer was convinced he was going to rob us,” he recalls — a prediction that, fortunately, went unrealized. Bribes of $300 to $400 are expected by local officials, and are simply part of the cost of doing research in Congo.

“Probably everyone in the U.S. has some connection to Congo and doesn’t realize it,” Fahey says. The country’s rich natural resources include copper, gold, diamonds, and coltan, a mineral widely used in producing cell phones and other electronic goods bound for global markets.

But the value of those resources comes at a terrible cost to the country. The spoils not only fund the nation’s ongoing bloodshed; their extraction also devastates the environment and affects public health. Fahey likens the unrestrained gold mining there to the situation during the California gold rush, with dangerous mining practices washing away entire hillsides and contaminating water supplies with mercury. He recalls visiting an underground gold mine that was finally shut down because of its unsafe conditions. But, he observes, “Even if people are aware of the risks and dangers, they’re just trying to survive.”

Fahey admits he’s given instructions to his brother about what to do if anything should happen to him. He takes precautions when he can, but has no plans to abandon his research there. In fact, he recently expanded his dissertation, which originally included events up to 2003, to cover the most recent wave of conflict in Congo. “No one knows when it will stop,” he says.

-Lisa Lewis

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