'Protected' Congo forest is logged regardless
By Catherine Brahic (Image: Greenpeace/Jiro Ose) (Image: Greenpeace) (Image: Greenpeace/Kate Davison) The world’s second largest forest – one of the oldest on Earth – is being traded for bars of soap and bottles of beer, a Greenpeace report has revealed. A moratorium on logging in the Congo forest was agreed with the World Bank and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in May 2002. But the new report reveals that, between then and October 2005, the government issued large numbers of concessions giving logging companies access to the forest. Together, the concessions amount to 15 million hectares – an area five times the area of Belgium. “Forty million Congolese depend in one way or another for their survival on the Congo forest,” says Stephan Van Praet of Greenpeace, who coordinated the research for the report, entitled Carving up the Congo. “I can assure you they know the value of their forest. If you cut the sapele trees you take away the caterpillars they rely on as a source of protein.” The Congo forest is an important biodiversity hotspot. It is home to okapi, bonobo monkeys, the Congo peacock, but is also an important source of African teak, used for building furniture and flooring. In the 2002 deal, the World Bank agreed to provide $90 million of development aid to DRC with the proviso that the government did not issue any new concessions granting logging companies rights to exploit the forest. The deal also prohibited the renewal of existing concessions. Under the agreement, remaining legal concessions would be taxed and 40% of the taxes paid to communities local to the logged areas. In this way, the World Bank hoped that limited legal logging could be used as a way to help local communities develop. But Greenpeace says that “not one dollar of the tax that has actually been collected between 2003 and 2006 has been redistributed to local authorities”. “Most people recognise that large scale concessions are not terribly efficient way of supporting development,” agrees Duncan MacQueen, senior researcher in forest policy at the International Institute for Environment and Development in the UK. Not only did the DRC’s government fail to redistribute the taxes to local communities, it also granted 15 million hectares in new concessions to international logging companies, in breach of the World Bank’s moratorium. Greenpeace researchers visiting the local communities that were supposed to benefit from the legal logging activities found that the communities have been offered goods worth $100 in exchange for granting access to wood worth many thousands of dollars. The “gift package” offered by one logging company, Sodefor, generally comprises two sacks of salt, 18 bars of soap, four packets of coffee, 24 bottles of beer and two bags of sugar, Greenpeace reported. “Sometimes people say they do not even have a piece of timber to bury their dead,” says Van Praet. Greenpeace is calling on the World Bank to “think outside the box” and use the forest’s potential in the battle against climate change. It says that 8% of the Earth’s forest-based carbon is stored in the DRC’s forests. Predictions for future deforestation estimate that by 2050 activities in the DRC will release roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as the UK has emitted over the last 60 years. In its current form, the Kyoto protocol does not reward so-called “avoided deforestation” – initiatives that protect forest from being cut down. But many climate scientists and policymakers hope that negotiations for Kyoto’s successor will include such measures. If this were the case, there could be a financial incentive for protecting forests. “We know it will take some years, but there has to be political will and if the World Bank put themselves behind it – well, they are the major deciders,” Van Praet told New Scientist. MacQueen is less optimistic. “I know a lot of countries think that makes a lot of sense. The Stern report even calculated the economic cost of avoided deforestation,” he says, “but it’s difficult to know what payment for avoided deforestation would mean in practice.” For MacQueen, the main problem is the tricky question of who owns the forest. In most developing countries it is accepted that the state owns the forest, not the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods. This means there is no guarantee the communities will reap the benefit of avoided deforestation. “Often, the only way of showing you own a piece of forest is to show you are doing something on it, like cutting trees down,” MacQueen explains. Under these conditions of uncertain ownership, it can be more lucrative for local people to chop down trees and plant crops than to protect the forest. “I have no doubt whatsoever that if you have poverty eradication in mind, community-owned forestry is the way to go,” says MacQueen. Papua New Guinea, Mexico and Guatemala have all successfully granted forested land to associations of local communities who are certified to exploit the forest sustainably. The DRC’s current government, inaugurated in January 2007, has stated that it will honour the moratorium, and is now investigating the legality of concessions issued since 2002. Climate Change – Want to know more about global warming – the science, impacts and political debate?