Carry On up the Congo

Feature story - October 8, 2008
Illegal logging is rapidly destroying the Earth's stores of natural resources at a time when runaway climate change threatens life on every continent. However, a review of the legality of 156 logging contracts in Democratic Republic of Congo will put its ancient forests in peril, rather than protect them.

A woman from a forest dependant community gathers firewood. Approximately 40 million people in the DRC depend on the rainforest for their basic needs, such as medicine, food or shelter. Logging is seen by the World Bank and other donors as a way to alleviate poverty and promote economic development.

Logging titles have been under the microscope in DRC for three years, under a review financed by the World Bank. Greenpeace has been keeping watch to see if the review actually protects these ever-diminishing tropical forests, rather than the loggers' short-term profits.

On Monday 6 October, the review was announced and at the same time Environment Minister Jose Endundo made a public commitment to extend the current moratorium. While the announcement of the moratorium is good news, we fear that with such a flawed review, the reality could be business-as-usual for unregulated logging in the region.

Legal precedents ignored

In 2002, a moratorium stopped the allocation of new concessions in DR Congo, in an effort to keep logging out of protected areas. The Government then launched a review in 2005 to determine which existing contracts could be converted to legal concessions under the conditions of the Forest Code.

In the initial findings released this week, the commission responsible for the review has declared that logging can now take place under 46 of the 156 contracts - including 33 that are illegal titles obtained in breach of the 2002 moratorium.

From the very start, the terms of reference were flawed and easily manipulated by companies with vested interests. For example, the review's own Technical Working Group said that there was not enough information on previous permit boundaries to judge whether companies have been operating outside of them.

Greenpeace's briefing paper published today shows how more destructive logging could occur on these concessions that were obtained illegally.

No social or environmental considerations

Even if the terms were followed properly, the review would still be woefully inadequate.

Social conflicts are ever-present in these company's concession areas - violations of human rights are the rule rather than the exception. However, the review did not measure or even acknowledge this aspect of logging.

Without social and environmental criteria, the process ignores both local people's livelihoods and the global significance of tropical forest in stabilising climate change and protecting biodiversity.

The draft review findings were kept secret for over a week, only circulated to the companies concerned and not to forest communities who are immediately at risk from logging.

Desperate need for good governance

The Swiss-German SIFORCO (owned by Danzer Group) and all the subsidiaries of the Portuguese NST Group have seen the majority of their titles approved.

In our report Conning the Congo, we exposed how companies like Danzer are cheating local people out of large amount of tax revenue.

These companies are now promoting themselves as ready for "sustainable certification" for European markets. In fact, they are logging in intact forests, near biodiversity hotspots and exporting masses of internationally protected tree species.

Can we really expect them to do the right thing?

Without basic regulation, it is impossible enforce the law or trace the origin of logs - making a mockery of international efforts to cut demand for illegal forest timber.

Now that the Environmental Minister has committed to extend the current moratorium we urge the DRC government to turn this commitment into a reality with a legally binding Presidential decree. We also urge those nations who are active donors of the DRC to provide support so that this decree can be properly implemented and monitored while the country works to improve the governance in the forest sector.

It is also time for alternatives given the scientific evidence of the vital role forests play in stablising global climate change. To protect the remaining Congo forests, we call for a participatory land-use plan, based on the needs and rights of forest-dependent communities.

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