DRC’s efforts to combat illegal logging reversed within months

  • DRC government attempts in 2022 to clean up the country’s beleaguered logging sector were reversed within just three months following a legal appeal by a logging company. 
  • Global Witness has identified instances of logging roads being built in some areas during those three months, despite logging having been suspended by the government.

Aerial view of a green rainforest in the Congo Basin. Credit: Getty / guenterguni

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the most biologically diverse country in Africa, and is home to around 60% of the Congo Basin rainforest - often dubbed the “second lung of the world”. But it also has one of the highest deforestation rates globally, with the country losing more than one million hectares of tree cover in 2023 alone.

For decades, the country has been beset with corruption and governance issues which have hampered attempts to control deforestation.

Following an initial report by Global Witness in October 2023, further investigation has found that attempts by the DRC government to clean up the country’s beleaguered logging sector in 2022 were reversed within just three months following a legal appeal by a timber company. Logging roads continued to be built in some areas of the rainforest during this three-month halt.

The finding is a stark indication of the challenges governments face when trying to protect their forests from international business interests. 

An attempted clearout

The difficulty of cracking down on illegal logging in the DRC is vast, with 90% of logging found to be illegal in a 2014 report by the UK think tank Chatham House.

A DRC government review published at the beginning of April 2022 said that many logging areas known as concessions had been allocated in breach of the countries’ own laws.

Subsequently, on 5th April 2022 the DRC Environment Minister suspended 12 concessions operated by five logging companies.

Five of these concessions were held by one of the DRC’s most controversial logging companies, Congo King Baisheng Forestry Development (CKBFD), owned by China-based Wan Peng International. Some of these logging concessions had been initially awarded to CKBFD through “influence peddling”, according to the government.

DRC’s Environment Minister Eve Bazaiba said that the decision to suspend the licenses was taken to “preserve Congolese forests in the interest of the communities”, and the New York Times reported that her department had “begun an effort to rein in corruption that includes suspending logging licenses that were given out illegally.”

DRC logging
Efforts to clean up the country’s beleaguered logging sector in 2022 were reversed within just three months.

Decades of logging and a three-month ban

However, DRC government efforts to protect the forest appear to have been in vain.

Global Witness published a report in October 2023 alleging that the April 2022 suspension had been breached by CKBFD. The report also alleged that over $5 million worth of illicit timber had been exported by CKBFD to China between June and December 2022.

But Global Witness subsequently removed its report when new evidence came to light.

CKBFD had not responded to any of Global Witness’s approaches for comment ahead of publication of the 2023 report. But one month after it was published, CKBFD gave a press conference in which the company strenuously denied Global Witness’s allegations, citing a June 2022 court order which overturned its concessions’ suspension.

Through this press conference and subsequent public statements by the company, Global Witness found that the concessions were only suspended – and the forest only protected – for a three month period between April and June 2022, after which logging could legally resume.

Global Witness makes no allegation of illegality or corruption in relation to the awarding of CKBFD or any other companies’ concessions. But their reinstatement after the three-month suspension resulted in two million hectares of rainforest put back in the hands of loggers, including CKBFD’s five concessions.

This resulted in two million hectares of rainforest put back in the hands of loggers, including CKBFD’s five concessions.

As of May 2024, Global Witness has been unable to find any public statement on the halting of the suspension on any of the DRC government websites. Copies of the June 2022 court order have only been obtainable to those who attended CKBFD’s press conference last year.

Global Witness contacted the DRC government for comment multiple times but did not receive a response.

Young Western Lowland Gorilla sitting in a tree in Congo Basin. Credit: Getty / @guenterguni

Logging operations continue

During its press conference, CKBFD denied it logged at any time during the three-month suspension period, and claimed that only timber logged prior to that period were exported during this time.

But satellite images reviewed by Global Witness suggest logging-related activity continued within the company’s concessions during the three-month protected period of April to June 2022 – during which any logging in the concession areas was illegal.

In one concession area, satellite images taken on 5th April and 6th June 2022 show the expansion of roads within the company’s concession area. Global Witness consulted four independent experts who all asserted that the pattern of the roads indicate they were likely expanded to carry out logging activities in the area.

It is clear that these roads are for logging, as they are not connecting settled areas, but instead penetrate and spread out deep within intact rainforests. Moreover, signs of recent logging are evident and tie the road building to an extractive logging land use. - Matthew Hansen, a remote sensing expert at the University of Maryland

Similar logging road expansion is shown in further satellite images of another concessions area, taken between 8th April and 11th June 2022. 

Global Witness put these allegations to CKBFD, but did not receive a response despite multiple attempts to contact the company via several different channels.

In relation to other concessions areas, Actions pour la Promotion et Protection des Peuples et Espèces Menacés (APEM), a Kinshasa based advocacy organisation stated publicly in October: “Many things have been observed at the field level, in particular the cutting of wood which goes beyond the yearly cutting limit. This activity went beyond the permitted boundary. The company has even been logging species that are not mentioned in their operating permit. There are also all the social issues related to workers. For example, the absence of employment contracts and living arrangements.”

A 2023 report by Rainforest Foundation UK found that logging activities within concession areas facilitates increases rates of deforestation in the long term – because logging roads open up further areas of forest to be exploited.

The way forward

Despite the DRC having some of the highest deforestation levels in the world, the DRC government has signalled that it may give the green light to new concessions in the future – potentially opening up vast swathes of formerly protected forest for logging.

This demonstrates that the conditions for the DRC’s forest to be managed in a way that is equitable and sustainable do not currently exist, and why the prospect of opening up tens of millions of hectares of more forestry concessions poses a big risk to forests and the communities that live in them - Joe Eisen, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation UK

International demand for Congolese timber plays a key role in driving logging in the DRC. In 2022, China imported more timber from DRC than any other country, although the scale of illegality and cross-border trade makes the total amount of timber exported difficult to calculate.

To protect “climate-critical forests”, Eisen said that local communities and public agencies in the DRC should be empowered to enforce laws already in place.

“Ultimately though, we think it should now move away from the flawed industrial logging and embrace models that put local communities at the heart of forest management and protection efforts, including through implementation of the country’s innovative community forest law.”