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Is the forestry project of the French Development Agency threatening the peatlands of the DRC? (commentary)

  • An open letter to the Norwegian government rightly raises the question of the essential role of peatlands in carbon storage and the importance of not destroying them.
  • It seems, however, that this open letter, signed by some thirty scientists, imputes motives to the AFD unjustifiably and relies on inappropriate comparisons with Indonesia.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Prof. Simon Lewis, a co-author of an article on peatlands in the Congo Basin published in Nature, recently proposed to scientists working on tropical forests that they sign an open letter asking the Norwegian government, which finances most of the CAFI (Central Africa Forests Initiative) programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to reject the “sustainable forest management” project proposed by the French Development Agency, to be funded by the CAFI.

The text of the open letter states: “The Norwegian government will decide in the coming weeks whether to fund a programme proposed by the French Development Agency (AFD), one of whose objectives is to revive and expand the industrial logging sector in the forests of DRC. The proposed programme would also involve lifting the moratorium on the allocation of new logging concessions in DRC, which, due to forest governance failures, has been in place since 2002.”

Lewis is concerned that: “[T]he AFD proposal has not given adequate consideration to the potential damage of the program to DRC’s peatlands. Indeed, it does not mention them.”

He then compares the situation of the Congolese Central Cuvette with the peatlands of Indonesia:

The peatlands are highly sensitive to disturbance. Today, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, logging and altering drainage patterns easily tips tropical peatlands to releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as seen in Indonesia where logging peatlands has occurred extensively. In turn, the logging of Indonesian peatlands has led to serious forest fires with major human health, climate, and biodiversity impacts. These negative impacts have all been avoided, so far, in the Congo peatlands.

This letter rightly raises the question of the essential role of peatlands in carbon storage and the importance of not destroying them. It seems, however, that this open letter, signed by some thirty scientists, imputes motives to the AFD unjustifiably and relies on inappropriate comparisons with Indonesia.

From what is known about the project submitted by the AFD, it contains provisions to accompany a possible lifting of the moratorium on the allocation of new forest concessions. This desire to lift the moratorium has been publicly mentioned several times by the Congolese authorities, but it has been deferred so far for diplomatic reasons, probably in connection with the CAFI programme. According to AFD’s statements reported in a Le Monde article published on 26 June, the figures of 20 to 30 million hectares of concessions (there are about 11 million ha allocated today) are only projections of what might result from lifting the moratorium, not the project’s objectives.

River and forest in the DRC. Photo by Jean-Marc Roda.

To the extent that the AFD project has not been made public, it seems difficult to ignore this distinction and to make a case against the agency based on assumptions, especially by asserting that one of the objectives of the AFD project “is to revive and expand the industrial logging sector in the forests of DRC.” Whether such projections may seem inappropriate in the context of the controversy surrounding the issue of logging in the DRC is another issue. In any case, it is difficult to see how a foreign aid agency could set for the DRC government the objective of doubling the area of concessions, a political decision that falls under the sovereignty of the Congolese state.

Moreover, the proposed comparison with the destruction of the peatlands of Indonesia seems inappropriate. In Indonesia, many peatlands have been entirely cut down and drained to give way to intensive plantations of oil palms or pulpwood: “In Indonesia, peatland fires are mostly anthropogenic, started by local (indigenous) and immigrant farmers as part of small-scale land clearance activities, and also, on a much larger scale, by private companies and government agencies as the principal tool for clearing forest, before establishing crops.” (Page et al. (2002). doi:10.1038/nature01131)

Such a development is fortunately not relevant in the DRC, where the phenomenon of large-scale conversion of forests to intensive plantations has not been able to overcome the many obstacles linked to the lack of infrastructure and the “cost of doing business,” which is particularly high in this country. Forest concessions in the DRC are characterized by highly selective exploitation of timber of high commercial value (due to the previously mentioned costs), with average harvests of two to four m3/ha (a tree extracted every two to three ha). Forest concessions’ areas are very large in the DRC, due to too low area fees (which are, moreover, poorly recovered), which do not encourage concessionaires to abandon the less productive parts of their permits. These concessions are exploited only partially, marshy areas (which often characterize peatlands during the rainy season) being avoided, not only because of the existing legal prohibition, but because of the technical difficulties of exploitation.

In the peatlands area of the Congolese basin mapped by S. Lewis and his colleagues, there appear to be at least three forest concessions in operation on the DRC side. What is the impact of these activities on peatlands? Honestly, we do not know, but one can doubt that the signatories of the petition know more. All that can be said is that the AFD project, and more generally the CAFI programme, aims to help the government to enforce existing laws and in particular to support forest management, which obliges concessionaires to take measures to protect sensitive areas such as peatlands (by putting them into conservation or protection zones). In this sense, the AFD project can only improve the situation if it succeeds in helping the Congolese administration to enforce regulatory standards on all concessions.

Some of the concerns expressed by Simon Lewis and his colleagues, however, seem justified. It is legitimate to question the possible impacts of logging, even of very low intensity, in this vast area of peatlands. This requires researchers to monitor forest dynamics in these areas. In the CAFI programme, a major effort will be made to support the government in preparing land use planning. It would be more appropriate to insist on the side of the CAFI programme that, as a precautionary measure and pending research results, the future land use plans to be developed by the Congolese stakeholders reserve the area of the Central Cuvette for non-extractive and non-industrial uses (neither forest concessions nor industrial plantations).

Furthermore, the achievement of a participatory land use plan of the forested area of the DRC is one of the conditions for the lifting of the moratorium, as recalled clearly by this statement from the Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative.

Peat forest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.


Alain Karsenty, environmental economist, has been research director with CIRAD (Montpellier, France) since 1992. His research and expertise area covers the economic instruments for the environment, including taxation, Payments for Environmental Services (PES), and REDD+. He has an extensive knowledge of land tenure, concessions, forest policies and practices in West & Central Africa and Madagascar, his main fieldworks. As an international consultant, he participated in several policy and economic reforms processes with national teams in Africa. He is the author of one hundred scientific articles and co-authored several books and special issues. He is a member of the scientific board of the French GEF (FFEM).

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