Deep in the vast rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, chainsaws are buzzing. Heavy machinery rumbles and growls, as loggers slice their way through the forest.
Three newly published investigations have confirmed that much of this logging work is illegal - and all of the biggest players in the industry are behind it.
This includes members of the Fédération des Industriels du Bois (FIB), the country's all-powerful lobby of multinational loggers, which supplies most of the Congo timber to EU markets.
The inspectors found evidence of companies exceeding their logging quotas, cheating on their taxes, operating far outside their permits, and falsifying their records. This provides independent confirmation that logging companies are acting with complete impunity. Some of the most flagrant illegalities carried out by the biggest companies were singled out in the new reports, including:
Until 2012 Swiss-owned (today US-owned) SIFORCO exceeded its permitted logging volume in a manner that was "quasi-systematic and massive".
SODEFOR, subsidiary of Liechtenstein-registered Norsudtimber Group (NST), falsified log markings, and failed to provide investigators with any of the key paperwork requested.
Subsidiary of Lebanese-owned Congo Futur, TRANS-M, owed over 150,000 USD in taxes... three months before the Ministry awarded it a 25-year tax freeze.
NST subsidiary CFT was felling trees 12 km outside of its permit area, inside the permit area of another NST subsidiary.
The absence of the rule of law is the loggers' best friend. A 2011 law, never enforced, requires that all concession contracts and social agreements be published online. So far the Ministry has published only 24 contracts and agreements, although anywhere up to three times that number may have been signed long ago. The social agreements that are available online are inadequate and contested by communities - leaving grave doubts over the content of the many that remain unpublished.
There is some evidence that the DRC government is taking steps to clean up the logging sector, as it has recently cancelled several illegal permits in Bandundu and Equateur. The government wants to sign a Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the European Commission to only trade legal timber to the EU market, but unfortunately that seems like a distant dream. In the forest not much has changed. Chaos reigns in DRC logging.
The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which comes into effect this March, will prohibit illegal timber from being put on the market, and require operators to check and mitigate the risk of illegal timber with a due diligence system. The Observateur Indépendant reports make it clear that DRC timber is high risk, and Greenpeace strongly doubts that it is possible for EU timber traders to trade DRC timber in compliance with the EUTR.
Finally, a bit of light has been shed on what's really going on in the Congolese forest. The DRC government must act on this information, and the European bureaucrats and enforcement agencies need to pay attention - otherwise the chainsaws will continue to buzz illegally in the forests.