by Mychal R. Ludwig, Head Editor, INALJ New Mexico
The Yangambi Research Station Library
Belgian Colonial Congo (1908 – 1960)
The Congo region that is now home to the African nation known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC) became Belgium’s only colony on the African continent after its national assembly voted to take control of the Congo Free State from the personal rule of King Leopold II by purchasing it in 1908.
Leopold II, from purchase in 1885, to sale in 1908, privately owned the Congo Free State as a kind of reserve, one in which he attempted to extract as much wealth as possible. The King’s personal enforcers, demanding payment in kind or through unrestrained taxation, took this wealth of mainly natural resources in ivory, minerals, rubber, and more. Suffice it to say that this school-yard bully left a wake of millions of slaughtered and maimed Congolese behind him (a loss of nearly half of the region’s population).
Over the next many decades, the newly named Belgian Congo, under the rule of the Belgian parliament, saw improved economic and social development relative to the out-right plundering of King Leopold II, riding on the back of the world’s demand for natural rubber (synthetic rubber wasn’t produced until WWII).
Yangambi Research Station, height-of-use (1933 – 1962)
Following in the footsteps of King Leopold’s “rational organization of agriculture” Belgian Congo continued to exploit the region’s wealth in natural rubber, and more controversially still, employed a system of “obligatory cultivation”.
With the collapse of this system of agriculture in the early 1930s, under the lead of Leopold III, the Institut National pour l’Etude Agronomique du Congo Belge (INÉAC) or National Institute for agronomy succeeded earlier Belgian attempts at agricultural research stations.
The new scientific agricultural station would focus on and become well known for supplying rubber and palm oil in and around the time of the Second World War. Emerging as the core of Belgian colonial agricultural policy, INÉAC expanded East into what is now Rwanda and Burundi, creating new research centers.
After the Belgian Congo became independent in 1960, the institution survived only just, with many researchers fleeing into Rwanda-Urundi, finally being closed in late 1962, criticized for its outward-oriented research.
Yangambi Research Station, curbing decline (1962 – Present)
Though the research station, with its unique and enormous library collection, was officially closed December 31st, 1962, not everyone left. The station’s librarian, and his small group of volunteer clerks, work every day at the now powerless library, fighting to keep the collection in a state of usability. Unfortunately, without financial or government support, things look grim. Without money, electricity, or water, (and resultantly, a crucial dehumidifier) the mold and the march of time are taking their toll on the many thousands of volumes and pamphlets of unique material covering the span of botanical and agricultural research during the period of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Yet, even in a country of endless conflict and unending strife, with little outside media attention, these tireless library-workers come to the research station every day, waiting for the day they get funding, or electricity, some kind of helping hand. This is the epitome of pride in ones cultural and intellectual heritage, despite the obvious baggage.
What then, can be done? Grants go unanswered, national stability is a ways off, electricity has been off for years. Librarians Without Borders? Partnering with Google or some other organization with the will and the way? Building a water-powered generator (the station is next to the Congo River)? What are your thoughts?
“Agriculture and Agronomy.” Expo Congo. Belgian State Archives, n.d. Web. 14 June 2013. <http://www.expocongo.be/content.php?m=6>.
“Belgian Congo.” Britannica.com. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 14 June 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/59224/Belgian-Congo>.
Bourdain, Anthony. “The Congo Is a Place Where Everything Is Fine — until It Isn’t.” Web log post. CNN.com. CNN, 9 June 2013. Web. 14 June 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/video/shows/anthony-bourdain-parts-unknown/episode8>.
Roxburgh, Angus. “Belgians Confront Colonial Past.” BBC News. BBC, 03 Sept. 2005. Web. 14 June 2013. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4332605.stm>.