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Congo’s long-lost statue fuels a fight for the forest

STORY: Singing and cheers welcomed the return of a long lost statue to this village in western Democratic Republic of Congo.

The “Balot” is a symbol of colonial resistance.

But it is also a figurehead of ongoing efforts to reverse colonial-era degradation of the forests around Lusanga.

The wooden statue was sculpted in the 1930s when Congo was under Belgium’s brutal rule and, for more than 50 years, has been held at a U.S. museum.

Joel Kashama is a Lusanga resident.

“It’s symbolic. It means that something that once belonged to us, that had all the qualities, was gone. But now it’s back.”

The restitution comes at a time of growing global pressure on Western institutions to repatriate artifacts taken during the colonial era.

But the Balot is about more than lost heritage.

Lusanga was home to a plantation set up by Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever.

Colonial era plantation farming reduced the once-dense rainforests here to sparse pockets.

Indeed the Balot depicts a colonial administrator, Maximilien Balot, who was killed during a workers’ revolt on the plantation in 1931.

The Balot’s homecoming, from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for a six-month display, is the result of years of activism by the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, or CATPC.

It’s a collective that uses the proceeds from art, including sales of digital images of the Balot, to fund restoration projects around Lusanga.

Artist and activist Alphonse Bukumba is one member.

“You know, if we’re talking about global warming today, it’s because we’ve deforested everything. We deforested everything. You know, everywhere you look there used to be huge forests, and when the white man came, they cut down all the wood to use it, and cutting down the wood is what created everything we’re experiencing today. So we can’t live like this until we have seen the world burn.”

Congo is, according to the World Bank, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate disasters.

CATPC’s efforts have reforested around 570 acres around Lusanga.

The aim is to expand to more than 6,000 acres to create a carbon sink, restore biodiversity and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Bukumba says having the Balot back on native soil brings a lot of positive energy to their work.

That symbol of resistance to colonial oppression now at the heart of a community still fighting for their land.

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