More than sixty participants attended the Oshwe Forum, the third roundtable meeting –after Kinsangani (Orientale Province) in July 2009 and Bumba (Equateur) in November 2009– organized by Greenpeace to discuss the future of the DRC’s forests. Men and women from local communities, representatives of indigenous people (Pygmies), NGOs (WWF, PACT-Congo, TRIAS-ACODEM…), as well as territorial administration agents and a legal advisor to the Environment Minister were actively involved in the discussions.
The Oshwe territory covers a vast area of 43,000 km2 (i.e. larger in size than Belgium), 75% of which is occupied by tropical rainforests. This has earned the DRC the title of “second lung of the planet” after the Amazon – a well-deserved distinction, particularly with regards to the Salonga National Park inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, partially situated in the Oshwe Territory. DRC’s rainforests are priceless, in terms of their biodiversity, the immense resources they provide to thousands of forest-dependent people and their vital role in the fight against climate change.
Oshwe City, reachable by a 1h40-flight from Kinshasa, is emblematic of a city where key drivers of economic growth are lacking: because of isolation and difficult access, development efforts have remained fragile, with a heavy strain put on natural resources. The vast majority of the population exclusively depends on subsistence farming and forests – which provide them with food, wood fuel, timbers and medicines, not to mention their traditional religious sites also located in the forests.
Logging companies have carved out the lion’s share of these natural resources for themselves, with 10 logging titles found “eligible for conversion” at the end of the recent “legal review” (7 of which belonged to SODEFOR), covering a 1,602,892ha large area. The Interministerial Commission in charge of conducting the legal review also found 7 titles “ineligible for conversion” (including the titles held by companies Senge Senge, Mojob, Olam Congo, Réserve Stratégique Générale, Socibex and Sokamo).
In this context, the three main objectives of the forum have been reached, i.e. to promote a good knowledge and understanding of the Forestry Code (circulated in Lingala and French) and the provisions of the ongoing forestry reform, to learn from the participants’ concerns, knowledge and experience on forest management issues, and to collect recommendations developed collaboratively and approved in a plenary session by the participants.
It appears crucial to emphasize the various stakeholders’ rights and obligations in order to bridge the significant gap between the theory underlying the forestry reform initiated in Kinshasa and the international donors' stance, and the lack of means and impunity that still prevails in secluded forest areas such as Oshwe.
Local communities pointed out their lack of information as to the obligations imposed on the logging sector, particularly the obligation to consult with the local population as specified by the Forestry Code, which in practice is often disregarded by logging companies. The same lack of transparency reigns over information as significant as the details of logging area boundaries, logging permits, prices of exploited timber species, etc. Timber resources continue to be traded against “a few bags of salt and soap”, while world market prices for Congolese species such as wenge, sappeli or iroko are skyrocketing. Local communities do not benefit from the exploitation of their forests in an opaque timber production chain where no portion of the taxes paid by logging companies, if any, have ever been redistributed to provincial and local governments despite the stipulations of the Forestry Code.
The lack of transparency, consultation with local communities and pre-logging forest zoning, as well as the non-enforcement of supporting forestry regulations mostly explain the pervasive spread of social conflicts between loggers and communities – including a recent event that culminated in the death of a villager detained several days in Oshwe and Inongo under dreadful conditions after SODEFOR resorted to police force.
The Oshwe forest administration office is unable to fulfill its responsibilities for lack of appropriate means: out of 25 employees, only 5 are registered civil servants; according to their statements, they receive a monthly salary of $33. They further indicate that this body, in charge of controlling logging activities in a territory larger in size than Belgium, is allotted a yearly budget of $2,000 altogether, and receives no logistic resources whatsoever… In these circumstances, monitoring and enforcing the forestry code and its supporting regulations really seem to be an impossible mission!
The recommendations issued by the forum participants include the promotion of a good knowledge, understanding and application of the Forestry Code, as well as actions intended to “open up” the region and promote its economic development. Participatory mapping based on the local communities’ pragmatic knowledge of their own forests appears to be the absolute prerequisite for the establishment of a participatory zoning plan reconciling multiple forest uses and splitting the land into conservation and development zones, areas intended for community forestry, rural development, and zones where industrial logging would be allowed in consultation and agreement with local communities. Communities from Oshwe urge the Government not to deliver permits to logging companies unless the latter do sign and implement properly social agreements.
Various rural development approaches have been considered, leveraging the multiplicity of forest resources, including their role in climate change mitigation. Such approaches should move away from today’s perverse situation –where local development depends exclusively on industrial logging– and be developed by and together with stakeholders determined to help answer this question: “How can sustainable and fair forest management be achieved in the DRC?”