More than 50 conservation and human rights organizations have called on international donors to halt funding aimed at economic development and forest protection in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the country’s leaders announced their intention to end a 16-year-old moratorium on new logging licenses.
“Any moves to lift the moratorium could see forests become the next victim of a scramble to make a quick profit from DRC’s natural resources,” Jo Blackman, a campaign leader with the NGO Global Witness, said in a statement from Rainforest Foundation UK.
Global Witness, Rainforest Foundation UK and Greenpeace are among the signatories to a letter sent this week to donor governments and agencies around the world that argues that an end to the moratorium before rooting out the corruption that plagues the forest sector in DRC could destabilize the country.
“Any expansion of industrial logging would have irreversible damage on the forest, its communities and the global climate,” Blackman said.
DRC holds the second-largest bank of tropical rainforest on Earth after Brazil. In 2010, it boasted around 1.6 million square kilometers (617,760 square miles) of tree cover, an area roughly the size of Mongolia. International organizations and countries including the United States, Norway and Germany have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into DRC in an attempt to keep that forest standing, as well as provide money for economic development for the citizens of one of the poorest countries in the world. The cadre of programs designed to achieve these goals is part of a scheme known as REDD+, short for the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.
But in recent months, government officials have signaled their desire to allow logging again in DRC’s forests, said Simon Counsell, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, in an interview with Mongabay.
In early February, Amy Ambatobe, DRC’s minister of the environment, reversed the 2016 cancellation of three logging concessions, allowing two Chinese-owned companies to move ahead with plans to harvest timber from 6,500 square kilometers (2,510 square miles) of forest and peatland. Counsell said there had also been closed-door talks within the DRC government to alter the laws for managing the country’s forests, known as the Forest Code. Then, on Feb. 27, José Ilanga, the director general of forests in the environment ministry, said the government would begin the process of lifting the moratorium.
That move led to widespread concern among conservation and rights groups.
“If the country’s forests are suddenly opened up to much larger-scale logging, then it really does pose a lot of questions about whether REDD+ is going to be viable in DRC,” Counsell said.
The letter advocates for the suspension of REDD+-related funding to DRC immediately. It goes on to say that the money should only be reinstated if DRC’s leaders agree to a more inclusive process for revising the Forest Code. And, the letter’s authors write, the moratorium shouldn’t be lifted until DRC can improve the management of its forests and the legality of the sector.
The discussion of potential changes to the Forest Code have happened with “no consultation whatsoever with anyone,” Counsell said.
Details about the possible changes to the forest code are scant, known only from what several organizations have been able to glean from a few leaked documents. Counsell said the laws could change so that the prime minister can hand out concessions without consulting parliament. The rewrite might also give companies six years to come up with a forest management plan instead of the currently allowed five years.
These changes are “further increasing the scope for chaotic, piratical forest exploitation rather than proper sustainable forest management,” Counsell said. He also said it was not a coincidence that DRC was expected to hold elections in 2018, as selling off forest exploitation rights is seen as a funding mechanism for political parties and candidates.
The letter warns that lifting the moratorium and changing the forest code “will have catastrophic environmental, social and climatic impacts.” Rainforest Foundation UK reported in 2017 that if the government allowed logging concessions on 145,000 square kilometers (55,990 square miles) of forest deemed likely for allocation, it could release 11 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in just 30 years.
Two of the three concessions awarded in February overlap with DRC’s carbon-rich peatlands. A 2017 study in the journal Nature reported that DRC is home to the largest area of peatlands in the tropics. What’s more, this area holds 30 billion metric tons of carbon — equivalent to the amount of carbon released globally from three years’ worth of fossil fuel use.
“Awarding large-scale industrial logging concessions now means selling off among the world’s most environmentally rich areas for short-sighted economic interests of a few individuals,” Victorine Che Thoener, a project leader with Greenpeace, said in the statement. “Before the government can credibly demonstrate that they have the well-being of the Congolese people and the forest in mind, lifting this moratorium is both morally and economically unjustifiable.”
Banner image of a bonobo in DRC by John C. Cannon.
Follow John Cannon on Twitter: @johnccannon
Dargie, G. C., Lewis, S. L., Lawson, I. T., Mitchard, E. T., Page, S. E., Bocko, Y. E., & Ifo, S. A. (2017). Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542(7639), 86.
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