The Republic of Congo’s high forest cover and low annual deforestation rates of just over 0.05 percent have led to the country being named as a priority country by the UN’s REDD+ program.
The country has numerous protected areas and has signed agreements to certify the sustainability and legality of its timber industry.
Skeptics caution that more needs to be done to address corruption and protect the country’s forests, a third of which are still relatively untouched.
On the surface, the Republic of Congo appears to be making strides toward both conservation and economic development. But the process of becoming an emerging economy is not without its growing pains, especially when it comes to conservation and the country’s forests.
The Republic of Congo’s high forest cover and low annual deforestation rates of just over 0.05 percent, according to the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), have led to the country’s designation as a priority country by the UN’s REDD+ program. Short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries,” REDD+ shuttles financing for development and conservation to low-income and emerging economies.
The Republic of Congo is one of six countries in the region that will split $47 million from Norway and several EU countries aimed at tackling the drivers of deforestation through CAFI. In February 2016, the CAFI board approved an initial grant for the Republic of Congo of $698,000 to jumpstart preparations for how later funds will be invested.
The Republic of Congo also signed an agreement, along with six other African nations, to move toward sustainable palm oil production at the 2016 UN Climate Summit in Marrakesh last November. As in many other countries, big agricultural developments for oil palm and rubber can lead to forest loss. The country’s leaders have also encouraged outside investment from the oil and gas industry and mining companies to bolster the country’s bottom line. Those sorts of development, as well as agricultural expansion into forests by small-scale farmers, are important causes of deforestation, according to the World Resources Institute’s Forest Atlas of Congo.
Additionally, in order to connect these economic activities to markets, the ever-present specter of road construction – which can open up new areas to farming, logging, and hunting – is moving quickly in the Republic of Congo.
Still, the country has been lauded for its investment in protected areas. That includes their part in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sangha Trinational, a group of national parks in the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Central African Republic. Sangha Trinational is a haven for forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus), and western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla).
In many ways, the Republic of Congo’s leaders seem committed to preserving timber as an economic resource now and in the future. Recently, they signed a voluntary partnership agreement with the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade facility in 2013 – a significant step toward ensuring the legal harvest of timber. But experts say progress toward a sustainable timber industry began nearly two decades ago.
In a groundbreaking move, the country’s government signed a new forest code into law in 2000 based on the principles of sustainable forest management, and it included the requirement that concessions have forest management plans. These management plans are a key element for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which requires companies to adhere to 10 principles aimed at protecting indigenous communities, ensuring the sharing of social and economic benefits, and safeguarding high conservation value forests.
The goal of certification is to make sure companies harvest timber sustainably, said Mathieu Auger-Schwartzenberg, the FSC Congo Basin program manager, in an email. That means that FSC auditors focus much of their energy on making sure the management plans that underpin those harvests are set up correctly, he said.
“The auditors are strict in checking compliance with these requirements,” Auger-Schwartzenberg said.
The Republic of Congo’s association with the FSC has only deepened, as demonstrated by a cooperation agreement signed in June 2015. Today, much of the country’s certified forests are concentrated in the northern part of the country, with about 2.5 million hectares (9,653 square miles) of certified forest. That’s an area larger than El Salvador.
One strategy for sustainably managing logging concessions in the Republic of Congo is selective logging, a significant part of FSC-certified logging in the Republic of Congo and “the main game in town in northern Congo,” primatologist David Morgan said. Morgan works with the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and has studied primates in the Republic of Congo for nearly two decades.
The practice relies on harvesting just a few trees per hectare rather than clearing a forest completely. Then, it’s left alone, allowing it to regenerate over time. At least that’s the theory.
But, “It’s a rather questionable theory,” said researcher Sam Lawson of Earthsight, an organization that investigates environmental crimes. “The reality of the history of this kind of logging in the tropics is that’s not what happens.”
More often, he added, “[Selective logging] is just part of an inevitable trajectory towards further deforestation, degradation and conversion” to uses such as oil palm plantations.
According to Global Forest Watch, while about a third of the Republic of Congo’s forests are relatively untouched, or “primary,” the remaining forests have grown back after being cut down. Right now, even with selective logging, it’s not entirely clear what multiple harvests will mean for the country’s future, Morgan said.
“What I’m really worried about is, come three cycles of logging…90 years down the road, the companies are going to come back and say, ‘Well, there’s no timber left,’” he said, adding that it’s not enough to just let forests grow back on their own. “We need to think about reforestation projects.”
Changes to the environment – even from selective logging – might affect animals and plants that depend on forest habitats in ways we are just beginning to understand, Morgan said.
“The degradation that’s taking place is probably having more of an impact than we probably realize because nobody is looking at it,” he said, and they won’t be uniform across animal or plant species.
For example, even though they are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, he suspects that western gorillas are probably faring better in the region in general because they’re less persnickety about their habitat than chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), which are listed as Endangered by the IUCN. The forests in the northern part of the country are vital habitats for both species.
Similarly, getting a broader snapshot of what’s going on is difficult, especially when the same area of forest is logged two and three times, Morgan said. Unlike clearcutting, which shows up readily via satellite imagery, the more surreptitious impacts of selective logging can be harder to measure, he said.
More sophisticated, satellite-based mapping tools can tease apart those effects, but only recently have scientists begun to train their top cameras on the Congo Basin. Here, more than 200 million hectares (772,200 square miles) of rainforest – second in size only to the Amazon – hold 39 mammal species found nowhere else, 10,000 species of plants and store 8 percent of the world’s carbon, according to the environmental NGO Greenpeace.
The consequences of repeated logging cycles go beyond impacting biodiversity. The economy could suffer as well.
According to Auger-Schwartzenberg, the FSC is working to ensure that the economic benefits of timber production in the Republic of Congo don’t just benefit the companies and that conservation discussions include their perspectives.
“It is crucial for an inclusive and well-structured [intact forest landscape] protection that we invite local communities and indigenous peoples to participate in the debate,” Auger-Schwartzenberg said.
However, a report published in April 2016 by the Rainforest Foundation UK argues that the rights of these forest communities aren’t being considered in conservation efforts across the Congo Basin, including those in the Republic of Congo.
Even the establishment of protected areas in the Republic of Congo, for which the country has garnered praise, may not be what it seems to be. As recently as August 2016, the government issued mining permits for exploration and extraction that overlapped with the boundaries of Odzala-Kokoua National Park, a wildlife reserve that includes both forests and savannas located in the north.
These permits were handed out based on outdated maps, officials said. But critics say that this instance is just one of many questionable decisions by Congolese politicians suggesting that conservation wasn’t their main concern.
Simon Counsell, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said that the issuance of these mining permits might point to “a cynical approach to maximizing the returns from forest protection as well as allowing and encouraging investment in these other activities.”
“They’re trying to have their cake and eat it,” Counsell said.
To Lawson, these problems indicate “deep-seated corruption at the highest levels of government.”
He pointed to the Atama plantation, where a Malaysian company cleared parts of a planned 500,000-hectare (1,931-square-mile) oil palm plantation and allegedly sold the timber from this “agro-conversion,” which is illegal under Congolese law. Lawson, who authored a 2014 Forest Trends report on illegal logging stemming from the conversion of forest lands to agriculture, said that the Atama plantation “looks like someone’s fired a shotgun through the Congo forest” on a satellite map.
He called for more transparency in how the government of the Republic of Congo dispenses permits for mining, logging and other extractive uses, and said that donors investing in REDD+ projects and certification mechanisms could play a role.
“Transparency is the bleach of corruption,” Lawson said. “If the donors were to stand strong on transparency, for instance, and put that head and shoulders above everything else, then that would be a good step in the right direction.”
He acknowledged that getting them to halt all funding until the problems are cleaned up may be “too big an ask” for organizations looking to improve forest governance.
“I don’t think you’re necessarily going to end all corruption in the country overnight by just tackling it in the forestry sector,” Lawson said. But, he added, regulators could do more.
Recently, fire tore through 15,000 hectares (about 58 square miles) of forests in the northern Republic of Congo, including a substantial part of an FSC-certified concession run by Industrie Forestière d’Ousso, which is a subsidiary of the Austrian timber supplier Danzer. The fire began in January 2016 and is thought to have been the result of human activity, and FSC’s Auger-Schwartzenberg said that an investigation into the causes continues.
He chalked the problem up to broader issues of governance.
“Developing countries in general have greater challenges in general than other countries in safeguarding conservation measures,” Auger-Schwartzenberg said.
Complications from corruption
In many instances, Lawson said that organizations like the FSC are willing to look the other way on corruption issues in favor of focusing on technical solutions – such as the forest management plans – which they believe will help save forests.
Still, he said, there have been positive developments for forest conservation in the Republic of Congo, particularly when it comes to agriculture.
“Although the march of agro-deforestation continues, it’s not happening as fast as it looked like it was going to happen a few years ago,” Lawson said, though he was quick to point out that that was more likely a result of falling palm oil prices than actions by NGOs or the government.
If the price surges again, or increased pressure on oil palm companies in Indonesia forces them to look for new forests to develop plantations, that could ignite a push to clear more forest in highly forested countries such as the Republic of Congo.
That’s also where David Morgan sees an opportunity. With its millions of hectares of standing forest, the Republic of Congo could learn from mistakes made elsewhere in the world, he said, in places like Southeast Asia and West Africa where big agricultural investments have wiped forests from the map.
“We don’t want to continue making these mistakes,” he added, “but it’s going to take an awful lot to ensure that we don’t lose some of these important areas.”
- Humle, T., Maisels, F., Oates, J.F., Plumptre, A. & Williamson, E.A. (2016). Pan troglodytes. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15933A102326672. Downloaded on 22 February 2017.
- Maisels, F., Bergl, R.A. & Williamson, E.A. (2016). Gorilla gorilla. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T9404A102330408. Downloaded on 22 February 2017.
- Morgan, D., Tim, R., Fiona, M., A., W. E., & IUCN Switzerland, G. (2013). Great Apes and FSC: Implementing “Ape Friendly” Practices in Central Africa’s Logging Concessions (Vol. 49).
- Pongui, B. S. & Kenfack, CE. (2012). Adaptation and Mitigation in the Republic of Congo: Actors and political processes. Working Paper 99. CIFOR, Bogor, Indonesia.
- Pyhälä, A., Orozco, A. O., & Counsell, S. (2016). Protected areas in the Congo Basin: failing both people and biodiversity?
- WRI Interactive Forest Atlas of Congo version 3.0 (2013).
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