Blog / May 30, 2014

Playing poker with Congo’s forests

The Democratic Republic of Congo has become the latest country to play poker with its forests. Environment Minister Bavon N’sa Mputu Elima was in London last week, trying to persuade donors to pay the DRC to keep its forests standing. The deal sounds simple enough – if the country raises $US 1 billion it will preserve the world’s second largest rainforest. Not only would this safeguard vital local ecosystems, it would also help global efforts to halt climate change. But Minister Bavon’s request comes at a time when his government’s commitments to preserving Congo’s rainforest are being seriously questioned.

DRC presides over more than half of Africa’s forests, much of which remains intact. As logging and large-scale agricultural plantations flatten rainforest just over the border in the Republic of Congo and Cameroon, the country is a bastion of thriving biodiversity and carbon sequestering green. But DRC is also among the poorest countries on earth, in urgent need of development solutions.

These competing pressures are well dramatised in a new feature-length documentary about DRC’s Virunga National Park, a world heritage site and home to the last mountain gorillas on earth. The film centres on a small team of rangers that are struggling to defend the park’s natural riches from poachers and illegal loggers, some backed by and funding machine-gunned militias. At least 130 park guards have been killed since the sixties, two in the last few months. The day before the film’s New York premiere, Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s chief warden was shot and seriously wounded by unknown gunmen.

Playing Poker Congo

The attack on De Merode coincides with his vocal opposition to the DRC government’s decision to allow UK-based oil company Soco to explore for oil in the park. The company is carrying out seismic tests in Lake Edward, and subject to government approval could begin drilling next year. The World Wide Fund for Nature, whose staff recently received death threats for their opposition to the project, has said that oil excavation could put at risk the 50,000 families that rely on the lake for jobs, food and drinking water.

Lawlessness and bloodshed in the world’s oldest national park is symptomatic of a forest sector that is riven with corruption and crime. Numerous Global Witness exposés have shown how DRC’s forest administration has issued illegal logging permits, allowed routine tax avoidance by logging companies, and failed to crack down on illicit forest operations. For several years, European donors have been funding an independent forest monitor to report to DRC’s government on illegal logging, but the country’s administration has largely failed to prosecute or sanction perpetrators.

DRC’s government stands at a crossroads in the governance of its natural resources. Either it can succumb to the short-term economic benefits of oil extraction and logging, at the expense of the rainforest’s long-term integrity and local livelihoods, or it can prioritise the more sustainable, progressive forest management projects, like the ones park ranger De Merode and his team have been stewarding in Virunga, including one to tap the park’s massive renewable energy potential, meeting community electricity needs in one of Africa’s most densely populated but least electrified regions.

On his fundraising mission to London, Environment Minister Bavon N’sa Mputu Elima said that preserving forests as large as those in the DRC will be impossible without outside help. This is not an unreasonable claim, but more money will not be effective without stronger assurances that it will be put to good use. The fact is that the donor community has already invested millions in forest conservation in DRC, yet that has not stopped the Congolese government from flouting national and international laws. The persistent risk of the embezzlement of public funds also means that domestic resource mobilisation for development continues to be weak.

In short, it is clear that before the DRC establishes a new “green programme” from donor contributions, it needs to show some real commitment to changing how it governs its affairs and manages its forest. Here are just three proposals:

  • Taking a zero tolerance approach to corruption and shoring up the governance of its natural resource sector. This will require clear and comprehensive safeguards in policy and legislation (the draft Oil Code for a start, currently being considered by DRC’s parliament) and enforcement measures including dismissals, prosecutions and dissuasive sanctions to combat wrongdoing.
  • Immediately halting oil exploration in Virunga and cancelling all agreements with Soco. The government must make clear that Virunga’s future is not a matter for a cost-benefit analysis; it is protected by the constitution and international law.
  • Recognising that industrial logging is not and never has been environmentally sustainable in tropical rainforests. International donors still cling on to the idea that logging can contribute to economic development – and the DRC government plays along with this – but it is destroying Congo’s forest, as it has done in Indonesia and Brazil. The fact that logging contributed just 0.02% to DRC’s GDP in 2013, according to DRC Ministry of Finance figures, reinforces the point that this particular development strategy is not working.

$US 1 billion could give a much-needed boost to forest conservation in the Congo Basin, but not without commitment to an economic development model that sustains both the environment and directly benefits the livelihoods of the majority of the people of the DRC.

Alexandra Pardal is a Forest Campaign Leader at Global Witness. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexpardal.