African Students call on World Bank President to save the Congo rainforest

Timber industry has not brought development – corruption and destruction prevail

Feature story - October 13, 2008
In his first visit to Washington, DC, 20-year-old Jean-Christian Ebanda from Cameroon delivered a forest petition with 42,000 signatures to the President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick. He is attending a town hall meeting at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in the presence of Mr. Zoellick and IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn. While everyone is talking about the financial crisis, Christian came to talk about the crisis facing his country—rampant deforestation.

"We have experienced the failure of the World Bank-sponsored forest reform in Cameroon, with increased illegal logging, rampant corruption, and no or very little benefit for the rural poor. We are surprised that the same model is now being repeated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)," he tells Mr. Zoellick. Christian came with his partner from the DRC, Freddy Mumba Mukula. Freddy works with the Congolese organization CENADEP.

Cameroonian and Congolese students have joined forces, because they discovered that they are facing the same problem: Their forests are being destroyed by logging companies. The World Bank started a comprehensive forest reform in Cameroon 14 years ago. The new forest law was hailed as the most progressive in Africa. Christian's generation bears its fruits today: The forest, divided for the most part into large logging concessions, is largely destroyed and degraded and many communities are poorer than before the arrival of the loggers.  Social conflicts are everywhere.

To Freddy from the Congo, that sounds familiar. Logging has accelerated in his country since relative peace has returned after years of war, and timber companies are eager to move deeper into the last intact forests of the Congo Basin. In Carving up the Congo, Greenpeace has documented in detail how industrial logging is wreaking environmental and social havoc in the Congo forests. A new forest law was introduced in the Congo in 2002, with the help of the World Bank. While some hail it as the solution for the forest, others point to the fact that it much looks like a copy-and-paste exercise from Cameroon.

The World Bank also financed a review of all logging titles, the results of which were finally published by the Congolese government after years of delay. President Zoellick is eager to share the news with the town hall audience. Only 7 million hectares of logging concessions remain legal - out of 22 million that were submitted for the review. The rest should be canceled.

This looks great on paper. They're throwing impressive numbers around. But Freddy Mukuba clarifies, "At the same time, our government announces its intention to significantly increase timber production. The legal review ignored its own criteria. Over 70 percent of the logging titles deemed 'legal' by the review team have been allocated in breach of a moratorium on new titles that was issued in 2002. And no one knows what will really happen in the canceled titles. There is no procedure in place, and the government has no means to control the loggers."  So, who will ensure that logging actually stops in areas that were canceled?

What Mr. Zoellick also didn't mention is that logging companies are already appealing the cancellation of their titles, in fact they have been preparing their arguments for years. At the end of the appeals process, the area allocated for logging could be significantly higher than the currently announced 7 million hectares. To learn more about what's wrong with this "legal review" in the Congo, read our latest briefing "Logging Sector Review - The Carving up of the Congo continues."

Christian and Freddy are determined to continue their work to save the forests of the Congo Basin. It's the second largest rainforest in the world. Millions of people depend on it for their livelihoods. The Congolese government has already declared it wants to maintain the moratorium on new logging concessions for three years.

That's a first step, though for now, it's only an announcement. "But the government also needs to crack down on destructive and illegal logging and develop alternatives that benefit communities and bring real development," insists Freddy. His organization is helping communities to map their forests so that land use plans can be developed, based on local needs, rather than on the demand for timber in the U.S., Europe and Asia.  He calls on the World Bank and the international donor community to actively support such efforts. "The moratorium must remain in place until control and law enforcement is established in the forest and until we have a participatory land use plan."

For young Christian, the case is clear, "The mistakes made in Cameroon must not be repeated in the DR Congo," he declared. He then walked straight up to the World Bank president and handed him a massive stack of paper-42,000 signatures from African kids who claim their future.