Congo-Brazzaville: Deforestation Threatens South With Famine

The trees are falling in Pool, and there are plenty of people to hear the sound. In a painful irony, the end of armed conflict in 2003, has signaled the wholesale devastation of forests in this southern region of the Republic of Congo.

All along the 75 kilometre road between the capital Brazzaville, and Kinkala, the southern region's principal city, there are bundles of wood and sacks of charcoal stacked ready to be trucked to feed the household energy demands of the capital.

Since the end of the civil wars which lasted from 1998 to 2003, production of charcoal and firewood has become profitable for the people in the Pool department, one of 12 administrative areas in the country.

There are farmers who produce nearly 300 sacks of charcoal every three months. A 15-kilo bag of sells for the equivalent of $10 in Brazzaville.

"Once they've acquired land, farmers prefer to cut trees down to make charcoal and go sell it in Brazzaville, rather than wait two years to harvest a field of cassava. With the money they earn, they buy their supplies of manioc and fufu in Brazzaville," Virgil Safoula told IPS. Safoula is director of a non-governmental organisation called Environment and Development of Community Initiatives (known by its French acronym, EDIC)

Most of the food sold in Kinkala now comes from the cities.

"Non-wood products such as mushrooms, caterpillars and asparagus have disappeared from Pool forests," Prosper Mayembo, director of environment for the Pool Department, told IPS.

According to the Pool Departmental Council, before the war, the region's 44,000 hectares of arable land accounted for fully 30 percent of national agricultural production.

"The practice of charcoal production and bush fires have stripped and depleted soils, to the point that famine is overtaking Pool," says Safoula.

According to government statistics, more than 6,000 hectares of forest were lost in this department between 2007 and 2008. And during the first quarter of 2009 alone, over 62,000 sacks of charcoal were produced in the district of Kinkala, more than 78 percent of them from Pool.

In the same period, 200,000 bundles of firewood from Kinkala were transported to the capital. "As long as energy needs ... remain important in Brazzaville, the forests will be seen as a solution," Mayembo told IPS.

Not even fruit trees are spared, says Emmanuel Sengomona, a landowner in Kinkala. "As you can see, almost everything has been razed. Mango, avocado and safou ended up in the charcoal ovens." (Safou is a dark, oily fruit widely eaten in Central Africa.)

"When we were growing up, our parents hunted in large forests here. But today, there is no more game," said 60-year-old Matthias Youlou.

"My fear is to see Pool become a desert because they cut the trees without respite. There will be no agriculture and we will die of hunger," says Mayembo.

A farmer from Mabaya, who wouldn't give her name, shrugged off the criticism. "If we do not do this, how will we live?" The sale of firewood can bring in the equivalent of 3,000 dollars every three months, she says.

Congo has laws to prevent the wholesale destruction of forest, but the trucks bearing this eviscerating cargo stream into Brazzaville undistrubed.

"These trucks pass through because they're paying money to the government. It's a shame because we do not respect the ratified conventions. The government can not stop the traffic," says EDIC's Safoula.

"When shipments of wood and coal are seized, how many people pay fines as the law requires? None. They negotiate to pay less," says Mayembo.

But the situation is not simply one of easily-corrupted inspectors. "Most people involved are former militiamen," says Mayembo. "We must avoid reigniting the fire (of civil war) by stopping them abruptly. We must therefore proceed with tact."

NGOs are severely critical of this attitude. "At Missafou and Madzia (areas in Pool), we see how the trains transport the wood to Brazzaville, but the government does nothing. Authorities levy some fees just to camouflage their irresponsibility," said Roger Younga from the Brazzaville-based NGO Congo Vert (Green Congo).

While trying to educate rural communities about the dangers of deforestation, NGOs propose alternatives. "Since 2009, we have maintained a nursery of flame trees, palm trees and jatropha to provide the people of Pool with reforestation alternatives. We've negotiated with Pool land managers and secured a site where the nursery will be installed," says Safoula.

Despite its immense agricultural potential, official statistics state that as a consequence of the 1998-2003 civil war, Pool's inhabitants suffer the highest rates of malnutrition in the country - two in five went hungry at some point in 2009. In a report covering the same year, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) stressed that one in five children in the region suffered chronic malnutrition.

"And if people turn away from agriculture, the impact would be catastrophic," Younga told IPS.

In response to the threat, the World Bank is urging the government to accelerate the process of setting up a national plan to fight deforestation.

"We will allocate 200,000 dollars to the government for the adoption of this plan," said Andre Aquino, head of the World Bank's Reducing the Effects of Deforestation and Degradation programme in the two Congos told IPS.

"Once that is done, NGOs and communities can access our funds because we have up to 3.4 million dollars available,"

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