While the eyes of most journalists and activists are focused on the mineral riches of the Democratic Republic of Congo, another of the country’s assets is being exploited with consequences that will be felt far beyond the center of Africa. It’s the forest that covers 45% of the nation–the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. Properly managed and developed, the Congo’s timber could be a perpetually-renewable resource that provides jobs, fuel, and food for millions of Congolese while it continues to give the rest of the world cleaner air and combats the effects of global warming. At the rate it’s being exploited today, though, the Congo’s rainforest will shrink to nearly half its size in the next fifty years.
The forests in DRC are amazingly diverse. As one of the few forest areas on the continent to have survived the ice age, they provide refuge for several large mammal species driven to extinction in other countries. Congo is known to have more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, and 200 amphibians, most of them protected by the rainforest.
In 2002, the government imposed a ban on new logging concessions. That ban was widely ignored as local officials often turned their heads in exchange for a few dollars while the timber companies cut as they pleased. The growing network of logging roads also opened up access to previously-ignored sections of the forest to local woodcutters, charcoal producers, and hunters. Today, according to Greenpeace, an area the size of Spain is under control of logging companies, some 30% of which was grabbed after the 2002 moratorium.
Last year, the World Bank, which has encouraged development of timber operations in the DRC, finally woke up to the results of their efforts and funded a six-month review of existing concessions to see if they conformed to basic standards. Of 156 deals examined, only 65 made the grade. The review found that most of the concessions adhere to no basic environmental standards and pay little or no tax to the central government.
In January, DRC’s Environment Minister Jose Endundo told Reuters that those who had failed to make the grade would have to stop logging within 48 hours. “Upon notification of the cancellation decision, the operator must immediately stop cutting timber,” he said. Considering the government’s record in enforcing the original ban, I’m sure the chainsaws immediately fell silent.
Why should we care about a forest that’s half a world away? Those forests are part of the cooling band of tropical forests around the equator that has been compared to a thermostat to moderate the earth’s temperature. It’s believed that deforestation is the second largest source of global emissions of CO2, the culprit behind global warming. Economist Sir Nicholas Stern says halting deforestation is the single most cost-effective way to fight climate change.
Halting deforestation doesn’t mean letting people starve so trees can grow. Modern forest management techniques allow for harvesting of timber and use of the land for economically-advantageous activities while ensuring that the forest has a chance to rejuvenate itself. Millions of jobs can be created from not just logging operations but downstream processing and value-adding manufacturing of wood products. That approach to forestry management is possible only when timber companies are monitored and laws are enforced.
Any encouragement we can give Congo to protect and manage its tropical rainforest will pay off for the entire world.