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NGO hits out at study for downplaying logging threat in Congo rainforest

Global Witness has called in question conclusions reached in a study on logging in Central Africa’s rainforests.

The group, which has published a series of investigative reports on abuses by logging companies operating the world’s second largest tropical forest, said that a review published Monday in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B “[presents] a misleading and inaccurate picture of the present and growing threats to the Congo Basin rainforest.”

“It concludes that logging is not an important deforestation factor and that it is ‘low impact’ due to purported recent efforts of the Congo Basin countries towards sustainable forest management,” the group told via email. “The data used to support such a conclusion consists of satellite imagery and official timber extraction statistics reported by logging concessions to OFAC [an independent forest monitoring body for Central Africa]. In our view, this data is not sufficiently reliable or representative to substantiate this conclusion.”

Global Witness went on to note that “much logging both within and outside concessions within the Congo Basin countries is illegal and unsustainable,” citing its own investigations as well as recent reports from REM, an independent forest monitor in Congo Brazzaville.

Forest cover in Congo Basin countries

Global Witness says that concession holders in the Congo may under-report production in order to “mask” illegal logging.

“[Our] report ‘The art of industrial logging’ sets out how logging companies in DRC have been abusing artisanal logging permits in order to undertake unsustainable industrial scale logging outside the concession system,” the group said. “This activity is not captured by reported concession timber extraction statistics.”

The paper in question was published by a team of mostly European scientists led by Philippe Mayaux of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Italy. The study focused on deforestation, which is defined as forest clearance, rather than degradation, which is typically the product of selective logging. It found that deforestation in Central Africa, West Africa, and Madagascar declined sharply in the 2000’s relative to the 1990’s.

“Africa lost 0.59 million hectares of rainforest annually between 1990 and 2000, which decreased to 0.29 million hectares a year between 2000 and 2010,” they write. “In all three regions, deforestation decreased by between 37% and 67% between 2000 and 2010 with respect to the 1990–2000 period.”

“On the basis of our estimates, the Congo Basin shows a lower deforestation rate than other tropical forest regions of the world.”

The authors note that while large-scale agricultural conversion for industrial plantations was not observed in Central Africa during the study period, that could change in “the near future”.

In its response, Global Witness said the study should have been more forward looking, analyzing the potential impact of the plan to lift a moratorium on new logging concessions in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as new investments in oil palm plantations and other industrial agricultural development.

“Given that over half of the Congo Basin’s forest is in DRC, one would have thought there would be a mention of the moratorium on new logging or the multi-sectoral zoning that is soon to take place. Once zoning is complete and the moratorium is lifted, the forest is likely to be carved up for commercial activity – logging, mining and plantations – with far-reaching environmental consequences,” Global Witness told

“The huge, emerging threat of export-oriented, large-scale agricultural plantations is also not analyzed adequately, for example as could have been done through detailing the extent of recent and forthcoming agricultural concessions – including the lucrative draw of conversion timber – or signaling the extent of the Congo’s forest considered apt for palm oil development.”

Rainforest logs in Gabon

Part of the apparent disconnect between Global Witness’s criticism and the research results from the study’s focus on what has already happened, rather than what will happen in the future. Other papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B special issue looked more issues like forest degradation and the potential increase in logging and industrial agriculture. These issues are important because, as Global Witness notes, the region may be about to undergo a dramatic shift in development strategy, potentially putting the fate of Congo Basin forests at stake.

Philippe Mayaux et. al. State and evolution of the African rainforests between 1990 and 2010. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 5 September 2013 vol. 368 no. 1625 20120300 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0300 Published 22 July 2013

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