Congo rainforest given hope as deals cancelled

Daniel Howden,Africa Correspondent
Wednesday 21 January 2009 16:22

The Congo rainforest, the second largest tropical forest in the world, has been handed a temporary lifeline after two-thirds of timber concessions were cancelled this week.

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has ripped up 91 contracts after a review of the notoriously corrupt and damaging logging sector in a country the size of Western Europe.

Greenpeace's Africa forest expert Rene Ngongo gave a cautious welcome to the decision: "This is good news," he said by telephone from Kinshasa. "The contract cancellations now need to be implemented. We hope that the Congolese government will focus on protecting our forests."

Congo's immense tropical forest, second only to the Amazon in size and importance, has come under increasing pressure from loggers, farmers and mining operations in recent years. Huge concessions covering tens of millions of hectares in the war-torn country have been parcelled out to international companies during the numerous conflicts that have beset the country. Most of these concessions adhere to no basic environmental standards and pay little or no tax to the central government, the review found.

Due to its remoteness, lack of roads and regular conflicts Congo's rainforest had previously escaped the wanton destruction seen in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. However, in the last 15 years mature hard and softwoods from Congo have found their way into markets from the US to China and the EU, taking large bites out of the forest in the process.

The World Bank which has been heavily criticised for backing development policies that encouraged deforestation funded a six month review of existing concessions to establish whether they conform with basic standards.

Only 65 of some 156 deals made the grade.

DRC's Environment Minister Jose Endundo said on Monday that those who had failed to make the grade would have to stop logging within 48 hours.

"Upon notification of the cancellation decision, the operator must immediately stop cutting timber," he told Reuters.

The minister also said that the government would respect a moratorium put in place during the 1998-2003 war on new logging deals.

The world's tropical forests form a precious cooling band around the equator which has been likened to a thermostat that helps to moderate temperatures.

Much of that forested band is under threat from changes in land use and deforestation has been identified as the second largest contributor of greenhouse gases. In his landmark climate review, Sir Nicholas Stern identified halting deforestation as the most cost effective means of combating climate change.

Making forests worth more standing than they are cut is complicated in unstable country's such as DRC which are beset by conflicts and a weak central government.

According to Andrew Mitchell from the UK-based Global Canopy Programme the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs and complications: "Paying African countries to keep their forests intact is like investing in a pension fund for all of us. What's needed is a fraction of what banks are losing every day," he added.

Greenpeace remains concerned that fine words in Kinshasa will translate into little meaningful change in the remote interior.

"It is unclear how the government will enforce the cancellations of contracts in the field, and how the operations of the approved logging concessions will be controlled," explained Mr Ngongo.

Even after the cancellation of licenses to scores of timber operations, more than 10 million hectares will be open to commercial logging. This is despite recommendations to the DRC administration from their own technical working group to reduce the area to 4.4m hectares.

In common with all the world's great rainforests, Congo provides shelter, food and livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of the world's poorest people.

"Local communities are angry because giant trees are taken from their forests and nothing but destruction is left behind," Greenpeace said in a statement. "The people of Africa stand to lose the most from climate impacts. The government needs to save the Congo forest not only for the sake of the global climate, but for the benefit of the Congolese people who depend on it."

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