Forest reform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Leaving people out

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Publication - February 7, 2011
In January 2010, twenty-seven villagers from the province of Bandundu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo staged a sit-in protest against the operations of Sodefor – a subsidiary of industrial logging company Norsudtimber (NST) who holds logging permits that cover over 7 million hectares of the Congo’s rainforest - an area twice the size of Belgium.

The villagers were detained by police for their protest - where they say they were beaten, whipped, confined in a container and – after transfer to the district capital, Inongo – detained in inhumane conditions in a police holding cell and in the central prison. One protester, 72-year-old Georges Nkaka, died the day after his release from jail.

The military or police are frequently called in by logging companies like Sodefor to deal with local critics - sometimes with tragic results. This is just one example of the violence and intimidation regularly used to quell the discontent of local people.

Evidence shows that any expansion of the Congo’s logging industry will only exacerbate both social conflict and environmental destruction. Yet, despite this the government seems set on increasing logging in the near future.

Entities like the World Bank encourage this increased logging as a way of boosting the GDP and tax revenue of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - but this revenue never makes its way to the villagers whose homes and livelihoods are disrupted by the loggers. The World Bank sponsored a ‘reform’ of the Congo’s forestry sector in 2002 to increase legality and transparency in this notoriously corrupt industry.

Eight years later the ‘reform’ is little more than a smokescreen for business as usual: industrial logging companies, almost all of them foreign-owned, plunder the DRC’s forests with impunity and take the profits elsewhere.

French actress Marion Cotillard visited the region recently and kept a video travelogue. Here she first learns of Sodefor and the nature of its dealings with local inhabitants - where often salt, beer or soap is all the compensation local people will receive from a company which will log for years and take countless trees.

Video: Some salt and some soap

The human rights abuses committed against George Nkaka and his fellow Bandundu villagers, following their protest of Sodefor’s logging operations, provide a clear example of the level of violence of which logging companies are capable. The government of the DRC and international donors - like the World Bank - must stop supporting destructive logging. It is not only the biggest threat to the Congo’s remaining intact forests and biodiversity, but is a major source of carbon emissions contributing to climate change, and will lead to more human rights abuses and senseless tragedies, like the death of George Nkaka.

Marion saw first-hand the kind of legacy industrial logging has left behind. In one village rusting equipment is all that is left of the 'development' brought by decades of logging in the area.

Video: Hostages of Poverty

The DRC needs sustainable development that is environmentally responsible and socially equitable. Industrial logging is not the answer.