The irony was leafy green and growing like a giant red mahogany tree as conflicting reports on logging in the Congo were released on the same day this month. In one, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification has now been achieved for forestry operations on nearly 3 million acres in the Congo River Basin. In the other, a World Bank-backed review of all timber contracts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said that more than three quarters of its logging deals should be canceled for not meeting necessary standards.
Ecologists calling for more logging? Government demanding a halt? It’s the kind of news that makes the Congo endlessly fascinating.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to 358-million acres of rainforest, the world’s second-largest tract of oxygen-producing, air-scrubbing greenery. It’s a rich resource among the many natural assets (like diamonds, the prize at the center of Heart of Diamonds, my novel of the Congo) that have attracted exploiters from all over the globe for over a hundred years. According to Greenpeace, more than 40% of it will disappear before timber industry chainsaws by 2050.
It doesn’t have to happen, of course, and steps are being taken to prevent an ecological and economic disaster of those proportions. Unlike diamonds, trees are a sustainable resource. Careful management of forests can provide fuel, lumber, and pulp—thus generating jobs, tax revenues, and economic stimulus to a country that sorely needs them—while maintaining the environmentally-critical forest itself for the long term. That’s what the FSC certification is supposed to encourage. Laurent Somé, WWF Central Africa Regional Programme Office (CARPO)’s Representative, says
“WWF is convinced that the adoption of responsible forestry schemes by logging companies will contribute greatly to the conservation of the Congo Basin forests and towards improving the national economy and also improve the livelihoods of local communities.”
The critical element is governmental oversight of logging concessions to insure that logging companies practice sustainable forestry while living up to contracts that provide tax revenues to build desperately-needed roads, schools, and hospitals. The DRC review of the technical and legal aspects of 156 logging deals, mostly signed during a 1998-2003 war and subsequent corruption-plagued interim government, showed that only 29 of the contracts met the minimum standards required.
Among the contracts recommended for cancellation are 10 of 16 belonging to Portuguese-owned Sodefor, a unit of NST. Siforco, a subsidiary of Germany’s Danzer Group, had three of its nine deals highlighted as corrupt while Safbois found both of its contracts on the cancellation list. Together the three companies account for more than 66 percent of all timber exported from Congo.
Many of the deals were signed despite a moratorium on logging contracts imposed by the DRC in 2002. According to Greenpeace, concessions were bought for pennies and tax and royalty payments avoided by manipulation of records, off-shore accounting shenanigans, and under-reporting of timber harvests. The DRC’s ability to bring the industry under control will be a key determinant of the Congo’s economic future.