On Thursday, I found myself at Portcullis House, an imposing edifice that sits across the road from the main Houses of Parliament building in London. The occasion was a panel discussion hosted by Greenpeace and (deep breath) the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Great Lakes Region of Africa, to discuss the crisis in the Congo rainforest. As the name suggests, it's a collective of MPs from all parties with a special interest in that part of the world who try to make sure issues affecting the region remain on the political agenda.
The special guest stars were representatives from two Congolese organisations that work to protect the forest and the people who live there, so it was an excellent chance for MPs, civil servants and UK campaigners (including me) to hear first-hand reports about the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and how the World Bank's policies are affecting both the forest and the people. Through working on this campaign over the past few months, I've learnt a lot about what's happening in the Congo rainforest, but listening to these guys really brought home how things are hanging in the balance.
We know that a mind-boggling number of people (40 million out of the DRC's 60 million population) rely on the forest for their survival, but it was Adrien Sinafasi Makelo, of the Pygmies Indigenous People Association Network and Dignité Pymée, who really made it clear how close that relationship is. He described the forest as a supermarket where water, food, medicines, building materials and more are all available, but the people he represents are seeing all these things disappearing before their eyes. Not too dissimilar from what landowners from Papua New Guinea has told us in the past.
Caterpillars, for instance, might not be everyone's favourite snack, but they make an excellent source of protein. Adrien described one species in particular that is harvested for food and only grows on a particular type of tree. It's bad luck that those trees are just the ones targeted by the logging companies, so less trees means less caterpillars and food is harder to find.
Also speaking was René Ngongo of Océan who highlighted the shameful 'social responsibility contracts' that local communities are encouraged to sign by logging companies. Not only are they paid an absolute pittance for access to timber worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they're often signed under duress. René cited one instance when exhausted villagers had been made to sign these contracts at 2am after they had refused all day to sign.
Simon Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation then took the stand and conjured a grisly image when he described garden furniture and parquet flooring, which are some of the products of Congo timber, as "the dismembered parts of an ancient and highly diverse ecosystem".
So, a great exchange of information for the APPG but to make sure the group doesn't just remain a talking shop, we need to see definite action. Let's see if some direct communication will make a difference.