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DRC announces intent to reopen its rainforests to logging companies

  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the world’s second-largest tract of rainforest, home to unique and threatened species like okapis and bonobos.
  • The DRC government recently stated that it is moving to lift a 2002 moratorium on new industrial logging licenses.
  • Conservation groups are denouncing the proposal, saying it goes against the country’s pledge and international investment to protect its forests.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has one of the world’s biggest remaining tracts of rainforest (second only to the Amazon in size), home to unique and threatened species like okapis and bonobos. In effort to protect its forests, the DRC implemented a moratorium in 2002 that prohibited the granting of industrial logging licenses. But earlier this week, the DRC government announced that it is considering ending the moratorium and reopening its rainforest to new logging companies.

The news has drawn the ire of environmental groups at home and abroad, who say that ending the ban on new logging licenses would fly in the face of internationally financed forest protection reforms in the Central African country. Currently, multiple EU countries are considering whether not to support a billion-dollar, DRC-proposed plan to conserve 1.55 million square kilometers of Congo Basin rainforest – an area the size of Mongolia.

“At a time when the global community is working together to protect the world’s last rainforests, a vital defense against climate change, the DRC government seems to be undermining the commitment to reducing emissions that it presented [at December’s Paris climate summit],” said Lars Løvold of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Congo Basin rainforest covers the northern half of the DRC, much of it still existing as Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) – an official term for tracts of primary forest that are big and undisturbed enough to retain their original levels of biodiversity. In their depths live species found nowhere else, like the endangered okapi (Okapia johnstoni) and bonobo (Pan paniscus), and the critically endangered Dryas monkey (Cercopithecus dryas). Around 40 million people depend on the DRC’s forests for food, fuel, water, and other needs.

Okapis, or “forest giraffes,” were unknown to the western world until the twentieth century. They are only found in the forests of the DRC, and are endangered. But efforts are underway to help save them. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The move to reopen the DRC’s forests to new logging companies is reportedly driven by economic benefits, according to a statement by Environment Minister Robert Bopolo Bogeza, who said measures are already underway to lift the ban.

But conservationists refute the move would benefit the DRC’s economy, saying the financial gain would be negligible for the average citizen.

“The argument that logging can significantly contribute to government revenues is completely unfounded,” said Joesph Bobia of Réseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN). “Around a tenth of the DRC’s rainforest is already being logged. And yet, in 2014 the country obtained a pitiful USD8 million in fiscal revenues from the sector – the equivalent of about 12 cents for every Congolese person.”

While the 2002 moratorium has been effective at stymieing the expansion of industrial logging, deforestation is still an ongoing problem in the DRC. The online forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch shows the country lost around 7 million hectares (3.5 percent) of its tree cover between 2003 and 2014, primarily in its northern Congo Basin rainforests. Some of this may be due to problems rolling out the moratorium, according to Greenpeace Forest Campaigner Filip Verbelen, which hindered implementation until 2005.

Global Forest Watch also shows most of the tree cover that’s been lost over the past decade has occurred outside official concessions. In an interview with Mongabay, Verbelen said this is due to the DRC’s vast informal logging sector, with the harvested timber (much of it illegal, according to a 2012 interview-based report by Greenpeace Africa) destined for both local use and for markets as far away as China.

Industrial logging concessions already occupy huge swaths of DRC rainforest IFLs. Conservationists worry that ending the country’s current moratorium on new industrial logging licenses could put the country’s remaining primary forests at risk – and hurt efforts to stem global warming by keeping the DRCs forests in the ground.

Still, despite the DRC’s illegal logging, Verbelen echoes the sentiment of his fellow conservationists that the government’s move to do away with the current moratorium on new industrial logging would be a catastrophe for DRC forests.

“I fully agree that there are many other causes of deforestation in the DRC  (for charcoal production, for mining, and certainly also shifting agricultural frontiers because a growing population needs more land etc),” Verbelen told Mongabay. “But that does not mean that industrial logging is not a big driver of deforestation and forest degradation, as well.” He pointed to IFLs, which he says are often targeted by logging companies due to their dense stands of high-value timber.

Instead of encouraging industrial logging, conservationists say the DRC government should focus on long-term forest protection and community investment to help mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity, and maintain livelihoods.

“Expansion of industrial logging in Congo’s rainforests is likely to have serious long-term negative impacts on the millions of people living in and depending on those forests,” said Simon Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation UK. “We urge the government of DRC to instead promote community based forest protection and alternatives to logging that will help the country’s population prosper.”