Trading away the rainforest

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, village chiefs have naively exchanged precious timber rights for sugar and salt. Locals are angry, and the World Bank is being blamed. John Vidal reports from Kisangani.

Lamoko, 240 kilometres down the Maringa river, sits on the edge of a massive stretch of virgin rainforest in central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). On February 8, 2005, representatives of a major timber firm arrived to negotiate a contract with the traditional landowners.

Few in the village realised that the talks would transform all their lives, but in just a few hours, the chief, who had received no legal advice and did not realise that just one tree might be worth more than $7,500 (£4,000) in Europe, had signed away his community’s rights in the forest for 25 years.

In return for his signed permission to log thousands of hectares for exotic woods such as Afromosia (“African teak”) and sapele, the company promised to build Lamoko and other communities in the area three simple village schools and pharmacies. In addition, the firm said it would give the chief 20 sacks of sugar, 200 bags of salt, some machetes and a few hoes. In all, it was estimated that the gifts would cost the company about $20,000 (£10,000).

It was the kind of “social responsibility" agreement that is encouraged by the World Bank, but when the villagers found out that their forest had been "sold" so cheaply, they were furious. They complained to the local and central government that there had been no proper consultation, that the negotiations had been conducted in an "arrogant" manner, and that people had been forced to sign the document. They demanded that the company pull out.

Since February 2005, logging roads have been driven deep into the forests near Lamoko and the company has started extracting and exporting trees, but the villages have yet to see their schools and pharmacies. "We asked them to provide wood for our coffins and they even refused that," said one man who asked to remain anonymous.

The Lamoko agreement is just one of many contracts, or concessions, that European companies have signed with tribal chiefs in the DRC as the country begins to recover from a decade of civil wars and dictatorship.

But according to a Greenpeace reportCarving Up the Congo — released on April 11, 2007, Lamoko did better than many communities. Some contracts seen by the Guardian show only promises of sugar, salt and tools worth about $100 (£55) in return for permission to log.

Others have reported that pledges made three years ago have still not been fulfilled. The report, which took two years to compile, claims that industrial logging backed by the World Bank is now out of control. "Younger people feel that elders have failed to look after the long-term interests of the community," it says.

In early April, many community leaders told the Guardian that their villages would sink into destitution if logging went ahead. As many as 40 million of the poorest people in Africa depend on the Congolese forests, and all the concessions handed out by the transitional government in May 2002 are in inhabited areas. More than a third of them are home to pygmy communities.

"If the trees go, then we will have nothing,” said one man who lives near Kisangani. “We will be consigned to poverty forever. The forests are our only hope. If they go, we only become poorer." Like most people in the area, he did not want to give his name for fear of intimidation from local authorities, who are known to be mired in corruption.

"The companies are obliged to employ local people, but they bring in their own people and we are left at best with unskilled jobs that pay the minimum wage — less than 50 pence [$1] a day," said another man.

It is believed that 20 foreign-owned forestry companies are active in the DRC, and that Chinese and other logging groups also are seeking to gain concessions. The companies should be prevented from doing so by a moratorium negotiated by the World Bank in 2002 as part of an initiative to control the forestry industry.

Most of the major logging companies — including Danzer, Trans-M, ITB, NST, Olam and Sicobois — have concession contracts signed after the World Bank moratorium; although there is an investigation into their legality, the majority are expected to be rubber-stamped this year.

"Most of the companies have benefited from the World Bank’s failure to ensure that the moratorium it negotiated with the transitional Congo DRC government has been enforced," said Greenpeace’s Africa forests campaigner, Stephan van Praet.

The companies, which export both logs and sawn timber, supply wood all over Europe but considerable amounts are thought to be shipped to Britain, mostly as finished products such as flooring, windows, furniture and doors.

African teak wood is protected by global agreement and cannot be exported from some tropical countries such as Cameroon, which have few trees left, but there are still no restrictions on its export from the DRC.

Greenpeace and other international forestry groups say the fate of the Congo forests depends on the World Bank and other donors, including Britain, rejecting industrial logging, demanding a comprehensive land-use plan for a country that is effectively lawless, and insisting that the government tackles corruption.

The bank accepts that logging could destroy the forests in a short time, leading to immense social problems.

"If we do nothing, it is certain that the forests will disappear and poverty will increase. Not one dollar of tax that has been collected has returned to the provinces," said Kankonde Mukadi, the forest officer for the World Bank in Kinshasa.

There is also concern because rainforests provide important carbon reserves. Up to a quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions now are
linked directly to tropical deforestation, the report says.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

Homepage photo by Richard Franco