Uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is beginning to worry countries in the Great Lakes region. A new report, which prompted the first ever regional workshop on timber trade within the region, reveals how Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan are exploiting the weak administration in eastern DRC to illegally trade in timber - something that may have everlasting implications on the region.
Eastern DR Congo has remained volatile for more than a decade with different proxy wars breaking out from time to time. Currently, the M23 rebels, fighting Joseph Kabila's government, control crucial areas in Eastern Congo like the commercial town of Goma.
The report titled 'Regional Study on Timber Movement and Trade in Eastern DRC and Destination Markets in the Region' commissioned by World Wide Fund (WWF) Uganda, reveals that timber harvested in Eastern DRC is destined mainly for markets within the East African region. There is little timber that stays within DR Congo.
The five countries depend on DRC for 60,000 cubic metres (m3) of their timber demands - with the biggest market being Kenya, which imported roughly 32,100 m3 in 2011. South Sudan followed with 10,700 m3. Uganda imports 8,300 m3, Rwanda 7,000 m3, and Burundi about 1,000 m3.
As a result, DRC loses about 400,000 hectares of forest annually, which is far above the forest loss in Uganda at 90,000 hectares per year. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI) atlas, total forest area in DRC at present is about 156 million hectares and forest loss over the period 2005-2010 was about two million hectares.
"Public administration in general is weak in DRC and in the forest sector, with extensive resources to manage, poor roads and communications infrastructure, and occasional insecurity... The forest administration faces an enormous task in managing the forests and regulating logging," reads the study.
The study reveals much of the logging in eastern DRC is carried out by small-scale logging operators or artisanal loggers who do not hold concessions but harvest trees in small areas. These loggers do this after entering into agreements with local chiefs, landowners and local administrators.
"Typically, timber dealers bring the power-saws from Uganda and the locals benefit through various administrative fees and charges [to local chiefs] and through the employment that the trade creates," the study reports.
Ituri forest is where much of the timber is got. The timber from this area is mainly exported to Uganda through Mpondwe. The study also discloses that 50% of the imported timber in Uganda registers under-payment of duties and taxes.
This is on top of illegal export of Ugandan timber mainly to South Sudan - mainly by adding locally sourced timber to consignments in transit to South Sudan. This illegal timber trade, David Duli, WWFU's Country Director, says accounts to Uganda's losses of Shs 23bn ($9.8m) annually through uncollected fees and taxes.
Uganda consumes 369,000 m3 of sawn wood or an estimated 1.2 - 1.5 million m3 of round wood per year worth Shs 101bn ($42 million), according to the report. At least 360,000 m3 is produced in Uganda and the balance of 9,000m3 is imported.
Environmentalists argue that deforestation in DRC does not only affect DRC, but will in the long run affect the entire region. "Uncontrolled and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, in particular timber, has negative effects to both the countries of origin, as well as the destination countries since reduction of the resource in one country increases pressure on its neighbour," noted Betty Bigombe, the state minister for Water and Environment.
This vice, Bigombe explains, can be checked if governments and conservation organisations can adopt market-based approaches to forest conservation. "Consumers should demand for timber that has been sourced from a legal and sustainably managed forest. Such approaches would then be supported by strict law enforcement, supportive legislature and regional collaboration," Bigombe said.
Internationally regulated timber trade is gaining momentum. The Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGHT) efforts to regulate illegal timber in the EU market, the Lacy Act in the US, Forest Certification, and Green Economy movements are some of the efforts advocating for legal and regulated trade.
Africa has the world's fastest rate of deforestation, while South America and Southeast Asia are losing their rainforest by the expansion of large agribusiness. A population boom and urbanization are the key drivers of deforestation in Africa.