DRC deforestation escalates despite resource shortages, protests, rape, homicide

/ John C. Cannon

Road construction, the promise of employment, and the conversion of forest to farmland – the effects of logging tropical forests are often not confined to the boundaries of the concessions, where, in the best case, a timber company has gained legal access to harvest trees. Along the Congo River in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo, recent data showing probable forest loss demonstrate the often-unforeseen consequences of timber harvesting.

Forest loss increased nearly three-fold in some areas since 2011

Road construction, the promise of employment, and the conversion of forest to farmland – the effects of logging tropical forests are often not confined to the boundaries of the concessions, where, in the best case, a timber company has gained legal access to harvest trees. Along the Congo River in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), recent data showing probable forest loss demonstrate the often-unforeseen consequences of timber harvesting.

It’s no secret that new roads to previously inaccessible forest can have deleterious environmental consequences. Since 2001, an area in DRC south and west of a logging plantation managed by a company called SIFORCO has lost more than 37,000 hectares of forest. Perhaps more startling, since the company’s operations were coming online in 2012, Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) alerts using NASA satellite data show likely forest loss adjacent to the town of Bumba has increased by more than 260 percent compared to 2011. Just halfway through this year, 2014 has already seen a 16 percent increase in FORMA alerts over last year.

Logging trucks operating in the DRC’s Congo basin. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

“All of this deforestation north of Bumba is related to SIFORCO logging,” Raoul Monsembula told mongabay.com. Monsembula is the DRC country Coordinator for Greenpeace and a fisheries researcher at the University of Kinshasa. He has visited the region around Bumba in Equateur province more than a dozen times since 2006 for a variety of research projects and assessments, and he attests that the boom is the result of people moving their farms closer to the road. And it’s more than just subsistence agriculture.

With the road built by SIFORCO to move harvested logs from the concession, farmers also have easier access to Bumba, and thanks to its location on the Congo River, to the millions of consumers downstream in cities like Kinshasa and Brazzaville. SIFORCO trucks often ferry more than just logs, serving as de facto bush taxis for farmers and their produce.

These dense human communities moving into in formerly forested areas pose major problems to wildlife, as their habitat is destroyed to clear land for agriculture and people bring with them a taste for bushmeat. What’s more, a host of tributaries lace the areas adjacent to the SIFORCO concession, emptying into the great Congo River.

Forest cleared for rice planting in central DRC. Photo by John. C. Cannon.

While Monsembula said he knows of no research on this specific part of the Congo watershed, he points to the mines, timber concessions, and farms along the Aruwimi River, another major feeder of the Congo River in central DRC. There, he said, local villages have seen their water sources dry up, affecting not only their access to fresh water but also local fisheries, a significant pillar of local economies and diets.

Forests serve as filtering mechanisms, sequestering harmful chemicals and minimizing agricultural and mining runoff. Ultimately, these contaminated waters end up in the Congo River, which carries the world’s second-highest volume of water to the sea (only the Amazon River carries more). Interestingly, a recent study led by Vera Verhaert of the University of Antwerp found surprisingly high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals linked to cancer, in fish from the Itimburi River, which feeds into the Congo River near Bumba. However, the study does not directly connect this finding to deforestation.

The DRC contains Africa's largest expanse of tropical forests, and is home to many species found nowhere else, including this okapi (iOkapia johnstoni/i) and bonobos (iPan paniscus/i).
The DRC contains Africa’s largest expanse of tropical forests, and is home to many species found nowhere else, including this okapi (Okapia johnstoni) and bonobos (Pan paniscus).

Local populations have noticed other nefarious effects of tree loss, such as water sources running dry since there are no tree roots to hold water in the ground. In 2011, as SIFORCO was in the midst of getting the concession online, members of local villages began to protest. Greenpeace alleges SIFORCO managers bribed local police to halt the demonstrations, which they apparently did with vigor. Former Greenpeace International Campaign Officer Rene Ngongo said in a blog post that their response was so violent that one of the demonstrators was killed and multiple women were raped in the process. Several of those arrested also claimed to have seen police receiving payment for their services.

In the wake of these events, Danzer, a Swiss company that used to own SIFORCO, lost its Forestry Stewardship Council certification in May, 2013. According to a report by the Forest Peoples Programme, Danzer has worked to fulfill promised development projects for local populations to ameliorate its relationship with them, and it appears as though Danzer will regain its certification soon. But the protest incident in 2011 shows how difficult it is to adequately take into account the myriad effects industrial-scale logging can have.

Even more complicating is the attempt to balance the benefits of SIFORCO’s road construction with the potential harm to the environment. Monsembula says the current reconsideration by the Forestry Stewardship Council only took into account the companies’ handling of “social issues,” not the impact that their operations would have on the environment.

Having access to the road does provide the opportunity for local farmers to move beyond subsistence farming and begin selling their produce at market. Economically, that’s a good thing. More cash in farmers’ pockets mean they have more control over their children’s education and healthcare and the chance to diversify their diet beyond subsistence crops like cassava and rice. Weighing these concerns against the results of environmental destruction has few easy answers, Monsembula admitted.

“It’s a crazy dilemma,” he added.

Satellite data from the university of Maryland shows the loss of tree cover in the area around Bumba, DRC, between 2001 and 2012. The area outlined in green lost nearly 37,000 hectares of forest during this time period. (Accessed on 4 July 2014). Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

He said that organizations such as the European Union have more robust certification rules that integrate environmental and social considerations into the decision of whether timber from the DRC can be sold in the EU. Monsembula said that, even though DRC does have forestry laws on the books, “due to various reasons” – rife corruption among them – “no one can follow them correctly. The problem is the implementation of the law.”

In fact, a recent report by the Chatham House, a think tank focused on international affairs based in London, figures that less than 10 percent of the industrial logging in the DRC is legal or sustainable. Absent the DRC government’s ability to assess environmental and social impacts of the harvesting of its own resources, the burden of regulation falls on the countries that buy these resources.

And while much of the timber harvested in the DRC can’t be imported to Europe because of EU regulations, that lack of demand is quickly compensated for by China, which doesn’t have “strong legislation against [buying] wood from countries like DRC,” according to Monsembula.

“That is the problem in the near future,” he said.

The Congo River is the world’s deepest river with depths of more than 220 meters (720 feet), and is the ninth-longest at 4,700 kilometers (2,920 miles) in length. Photo by John C. Cannon.

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