As the plane from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) makes her descend towards the airport in Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur province, I was impressed by a beautiful canopy of greenery that paints the landscape below my window; I was looking at the Congo Basin Forest. A casual observer sees a forest, nice and robust, full of life. But I know it is a fragile forest that could lose one of its best protection measures soon if we do not fight for it.
After the war in the DRC in 2002, under pressure from the World Bank, the Congolese government suspended the awarding of new industrial logging concessions. One of the primary objectives of this Moratorium (a temporary stop until certain conditions are fulfilled) placed 15 years ago, was to embark on a path whereby the forest sector would become a sustainable industry, generating billions of dollars in revenues and tens of thousands of jobs.
Due to inaction to embark on participatory zoning on potential concession areas; failure to establish a three-year rolling plan indicating the exact number, areas and locations where concessions would be gradually awarded; and failure to build institutional capacity to regulate, monitor and control commercial forestry, the moratorium has remained in place for all these 15 years, and continuously helped to preserve Congolese forest and prohibits the expansion of logging concessions.
That the moratorium is under threat is an alarming but painful truth. During the last fifteen years, there have been numerous breaches to the moratorium by Congolese government officials who are tied to the moratorium because preconditions for lifting it have not yet been fulfilled, but would rather get rid of it. This would put at risk the habitat of threatened species and the chance for forest communities to manage their livelihood.
In July 2016, Greenpeace exposed the awarding of illegal concessions by then Environment Minister Bienvenu Liyota and in February 2017 exposed again the award of two illegal concessions in September 2016 by then Environment Minister Robert Bopolo. Bopolo subsequently admitted he had signed three concession contracts, and alluded to the existence of even more illegal awards.
While Minister Athys Kabongo Kalonji announced he would cancel all the illegal concessions awarded by his predecessor, the cancellation orders have not been published till today. Also, it still remains unclear what other people were involved in the concealing of the illegal allocations, no investigation has been initiated, hence no sanctions have been taken against those involved. How can it be possible that those involved in these illegalities are not held accountable, but some of them are even promoted?
Donors of the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), an initiative that aims to protect the Congo forest to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, requested the immediate cancellation of these illegal awards, but more than three (3) months after the exposure, the DRC government still hides in vagueness.
These same donors also seem to believe that industrial logging could actually be part of the solution. An expansion of the logging sector and the lifting of the moratorium is considered by them as credible option to reach the initiative's objectives. Greenpeace, as well as a significant part of the global scientific community, considers this option as fundamentally incompatible with the goals of reducing forest degradation and deforestation.
I was heading from Mbandaka to Imbonga village to meet local partners. The village's only route is a twelve hours journey on a fast boat on the Congo River. Although illegal under Congolese law, large quantities of logs abandoned by bankrupt logging industries can be seen in some villages on the way to Imbonga.
Working for a campaign organisation that bears witness to environmental destruction, I realised the delicate nature and what's at stake to protect the Congo Basin forest.
Villages are in conflict with industrial logging Corporation because of little or no dialogue between both parties and there is minimal trickle down gains from forest exploitation revenue. Community Forestry offers the opportunity for local and indigenous people to control and manage the forest in a sustainable way, but once the moratorium is lifted, new industrial concessions will very likely be in direct competition with these community projects.
The Congo Basin forest boasts impressive Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL); forest ecosystems which show no remotely detected signs of human activity and can maintain all native biological diversity. The forest is rich in plants and animals unique to the region like okapis and lowland elephants. This forest also boasts the world's largest tropical peatland. The lifting of the moratorium can put at severe risk the existence of animal species critically endangered, like the bonobo as well as the peatland, which is only useful in the fight against climate change when left intact.
As our plane flies out of Kinshasa's night sky, the darkness out of my window makes me realise the limited reach of electricity supply in DRC. With basic infrastructure and limited social amenities, I asked myself what rewards have industrial logging brought to the people? Why would one want to lift the moratorium without adequate safeguard to manage forest resources and who are the real beneficiaries of forest exploitation?
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