Industrial logging companies and officials are systematically abusing community logging permits in order to bypass the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) freeze on new logging concessions, says a new report by Global Witness.
The "Artisanal Logging Permits" are designed to allow Congolese communities to carry out small-scale logging in their forests. But in practice, they are being used by foreign loggers to exploit Congo's forests on an industrial scale, primarily for buyers in China.
DRC is the second most forested country on earth and 40 million Congolese depend on the forest for income, food, building materials or medicine. However, decades of weak laws and poor government have allowed logging companies to plunder the forests, with very few benefits reaching communities.
A 2002 freeze on the creation of new logging concessions was designed to stop the expansion of industrial logging until long-promised reforms of the sector have been carried out. However, this misuse of artisanal permits has provided a way for officials and loggers to continue opening up new swathes of forest to industrial logging.
"The door to Congo's forests has been shut to new industrial loggers, but they are coming straight in through the window," said Colin Robertson, Forest Campaigner at Global Witness. "The artisanal permits are meant for small-scale logging by Congolese communities looking to improve their livelihoods. Instead they have been hijacked by companies who want to strip the forest bare with scant regard for the human or environmental cost."
The report, entitled 'The art of logging industrially in Congo', finds 146 artisanal permits have been handed out to loggers in Bandundu Province alone since 2010, affecting an area equivalent to over 11,000 football pitches. The way the permits are issued and used typically breaches DRC's forest law and regulations in as many as ten different ways. All of the permits seen by Global Witness explicitly grant "the authorisation to carry out industrial logging".
Most of the loggers involved are targeting Wenge, a valuable hardwood much in demand in China where it is used to make flooring and furniture, often for export to Europe and North America. Wenge is an IUCN Red Listed endangered species, exports of which were recently banned by Cameroon.
DRC's forest law states that a maximum of two artisanal permits can be issued annually to Congolese individuals equipped with a longsaw or chainsaw. But Global Witness found that up to twelve artisanal permits are being given per year to overseas logging companies, who enter the forests with heavy machinery such as bulldozers and log loaders.
"The Congolese authorities have been routinely breaking their own laws when handing out these logging permits," says Colin Robertson. "This should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who is buying hardwood from DRC and working to comply with US and EU laws against importing illegal timber."
A draft Decree on Community Forests would allow communities to play more of a role in managing forests and to benefit from properly managed artisanal logging. However, the decree has been awaiting signature by the DRC's Prime Minister since 2010.
"The abuse of these permits means the freeze on new logging concessions is undermined and new areas of Congo's rainforests are open for business. That's extremely bad news for those forests and the people who rely on them," said Robertson. "The Congolese government urgently needs to halt this abuse of the system, sign the long-awaited Community Forests decree, and ensure that the forest law is respected both by loggers and its own officials."
(2) A freeze - commonly referred to as moratorium on new logging concessions - was announced in 2002, and prescribed in the country's official legal journal in 2005.
(3) Wenge or Millettia Laurentii is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on its Red List of Threatened Species - www.iucnredlist.org.
(4) Global Witness has been working on forest sector transparency and illegal logging for over 15 years. Read more about our other work on forests here.
Colin Robertson: +243 991 386 482, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reiner Tegtmeyer: +243 822 189 044, email@example.com
The Congolese environmental NGO Reseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN) is also available for comment. Please contact Joseph Bobia: +243 8 18 14 85 39 / +243 9 98 18 21 45