Democratic Republic of Congo –after the war, the fight for the forest

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The rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire), and the many millions of people that live in them, are at a critical juncture. Most of the country has not yet been affected by the large-scale industrial logging and forest clearance that has all but eradicated rainforests in other parts of Africa. However, with the ending of decades of economic chaos and civil wars, this is about to change.

International agencies including the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation are planning extensive 'development' of DRC's forests. Potentially, tens of millions of hectares of forest will be opened up to logging companies. The rights and livelihoods of millions of people will be put at risk.

A process has begun which may soon be irreversible and could result in the eventual loss of much of the world's second largest area of rainforest. This could well be the first major environmental catastrophe of the 21st century.

Following decades of despotic rule by Mobutu Sese Seko, DRC descended into a ‘civil war’ in which as many as nine foreign powers became involved, and that, directly and indirectly, claimed the lives of an estimated 3.5 million people. In December 2002, an agreement was reached under which Joseph Kabila remained as President, with four ‘Vice-Presidents’ drawn from the rebel groups. In June 2003, a ‘transitional government’ was established; national elections are planned for 2005 or 2006.

The mass carnage which reigned over the country has receded. However, vicious battles sporadically flare up, and much of the east of this vast country is still under the nominal control of ‘rebel’ groups in a complex pattern of shifting alliances between various factions, ethnic groups and militias, with the support and involvement of neighbouring countries' armies.

The war has, at least in part, been fuelled by competition for control over natural resources. The United Nations Security Council Expert Panel on the Illegal Exploitation of DRC's Natural Resources reported in October 2002 that “corrupt and criminal elites” both within DRC and neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Rwanda were profiting from the civil war by using it to gain access to minerals, timber and ivory.The proceeds from illegal mining and logging have been used to purchase arms and munitions, thus perpetuating the conflict.

Some observers - including, in a secret report, the UN Security Council Expert Panel -fear that the present ‘peace’ is simply being used by rebel factions and the government as a chance to carry on their illicit plunder of resources, to re-group and re-arm, and that another major conflict is highly likely.

The illegal and uncontrolled exploitation of these resources has had devastating social and environmental impacts in some localities. Forest people such as the Twa ‘Pygmies’ of eastern DRC have suffered traumatic impacts during the conflict. As well as brutal treatment - including cases of cannibalism and reported ‘genocide’ - at the hands of one faction or another, Pygmy people have also suffered from a depletion of wild food resources, which have been exploited by armies, militias and millions of refugees fleeing from the conflict.

With the establishment of the transitional government in 2003, the international community has quickly moved to rebuild the country's political institutions and economy, and particularly to encourage foreign investment. DRC’s forests are seen as a potential source of quick foreign earnings, and the timber industry as a means of ‘kick-starting’ the country’s collapsed economy.

DRC's forests cover an area of 1.3 million square kilometres, more than twice the size of France. According to World Bank estimates, some 35 million people (70% of the national population) are resident within, or to some extent dependent on, the country's forests.

Bantu farming peoples are believed to have migrated into much of the forest zone several thousands of years ago, where Mbuti and Twa ‘Pygmy’ hunter-gatherers may have already been present. The World Bank estimates that the average per capita income in DRC is presently the lowest in the world, at US$ 90 per year; income in rural, forested, areas is likely to be even lower than the national average.

The economic chaos of the Mobutu decades, and failure to invest in infrastructure, has meant that relatively little of the forest has been exploited industrially, although a few (mostly foreign) companies have had access to large areas for logging. The German group, Danzer, for example, has for many years held logging concessions extending over 2.4 million hectares.

In some areas, such as in North and South Kivu, where there are rich volcanic soils, areas of forest have been converted to farmlands, mostly for subsistence. Around major cities, collection of fuelwood in an otherwise energy-starved country has also led to loss of forest cover. However, compared to other parts of west and central Africa, deforestation rates have remained low. Under the ‘guidance’ of the international community, this could be about to change.

In August 2002, a new Forest Code was adopted by the (unelected) Interim Government of DRC. The Code sets out the basic ‘framework’ for the DRC Government’s forest policy, such as that the government continues to assert state ownership over all areas of forest. Certain categories of forest are broadly defined, such as for ‘exploitation’, ‘community use’ and ‘conservation’. The development of the Code was supported by the World Bank. The release of a US$ 15 million ‘forest sector tranche’ of a Bank structural credit in May 2002 was made conditional on the adoption of the Code, which was broadly modelled on the Forest Law that the Bank developed for Cameroon in 1994.

As an indication of the extraordinary absence of realism in the Bank’s thinking, it believed that the entire new legal system for the forestry sector, consisting of perhaps twenty new presidential and ministerial decrees, could be put in place within only a few months of the adoption of the framework Forest Code.It also indicates that, despite the exhortations of the Bank’s own Forest Strategy on the importance of ‘participatory forest policy development’, there could have been no serious intention to consult the Congolese people about the planned legal reforms, as such a task would have been impossible within such a short period in a country the size of western Europe, much of it still under rebel control, and with virtually no functioning infrastructure.

In January 2003, following the adoption of the new Forest Code, a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) project was set up, also with World Bank (and other donor) funding, under which the specific legal decrees to implement the framework Forest Code would be developed and adopted. The FAO and World Bank are also developing a ‘zoning’ system for DRC's forests, under which the country’s entire forest area will eventually be divided up into areas for logging, conservation, and other uses.

The World Bank has taken some positive steps to reform the timber industry in DRC. For example, the Bank has pressed the Government of DRC to cancel a number of existing logging contracts, and to revoke 6 million hectares of logging concessions that were illegally allocated to a Portuguese company. The Bank has also urged that the level of forestry taxes should be increased substantially, in order to generate greater revenues for the Congolese Treasury. However, these changes have been resisted by the logging industry: forestry taxes remain very low (US$ 0.10 per hectare), and logging has continued in illegally allocated concessions.

Despite the apparent failures to bring the existing forest exploitation under control, the World Bank has been closely involved in discussions with the Government of DRC about a massive expansion of the country's timber industry. The industry declined during the final years of the Mobutu regime and the civil war, but World Bank documents refer to a possible 60-100-fold increase of timber production to around 6-10 million cubic metres of timber per year, and to the “creation of a favourable climate for industrial logging”. According to the Bank, an area of some 60 million hectares (somewhat larger than the size of France) is considered as ‘production forests’.

In order to lay the geographical basis for forestry in DRC, the Bank included a US$ 4 million forestry component in a project entitled ‘Emergency Economic and Social Reunification Support Project’ (EESRSP), which was approved by the Bank board in September 2003. Under this, the Bank would support the preparation of a ‘forest zoning plan’, which would “organise rural areas into three broad categories according to their primary objectives (rural development, sustainable production, environmental protection)”. Although the Bank stated that such zoning is “critical to secure land rights and transparent access to forest resources for ALL stakeholders” (emphasis added), the likely emphasis of this was belied by the second forestry element of the project: to “lay the ground for implementation of the new law’s forest concession system”. In fact, of only two ‘Performance Indicators’ which the Bank was aiming to achieve for the forestry component of this project, one is “Number of new [industrial logging] concessions attributed in a transparent manner”.

Despite expressed policies and general commitments from both the World Bank and the UN FAO, there has been virtually no consultation with civil society or forest communities over the new Forest Code or the legal decrees that will implement it. A seminar of leading civil society organisations from across DRC in November 2003 revealed that almost no-one (apart from a small group of government officials and their consultants, and some members of the private sector), was even aware of the existence of the country’s new Forest Code, let alone the far-reaching changes which are envisaged.

By November 2003, 15 legal decrees to implement the Forest Code had been drafted or were planned, of which 6 had been immediately passed for official authorisation, having been deemed as “needing no consultation”. Nine decrees were at various stages of “discussion and consultation”, but of these, only three had been made available to a small group of NGOs close to the government.

In February 2004, in an unprecedented move, more than 150 Congolese NGOs, representing groups from across the country, including a wide range of ethnic groups, development NGOs and environmental and human rights associations, jointly issued a demand for the World Bank, the FAO and the Government of DRC to halt its programme of development of the country’s forests. They called for a moratorium on the development of new forest laws and the forest zoning plan until there had been a thorough review of the Forest Code and the existing legal decrees, and until local peoples’ traditional land-rights were taken into account in the new forest zoning exercise.

However, by the end of 2004, further legal decrees had been drawn up or approved by the minister responsible. Notably, these all related to the process of establishing new industrial logging concessions, whereas none of the new laws related to local community rights, indigenous forest peoples, community forests, or environmental protection.

The proposed ‘development’ of DRC's forests, and the way in which this is being undertaken, presents a number of serious dangers.

Firstly, whilst it is recognised that economic development is desperately needed by poor Congolese people, the World Bank and FAO have failed to take account of the highly unstable situation in Congolese politics, and the serious weaknesses of the government. The authorities in Kinshasa are, as yet, unable to exercise even rudimentary governance, such as tax collection, in many parts of the country (especially in remote, forested areas) let alone control the activities of logging companies. A study carried out for the US Agency for International Development by the ARD consultancy concluded that:

“The danger now hovering over the DRC’s forests is weak governance, that is, the likelihood that the state will be unable to regulate access to forest resources effectively and, once concessions are allocated, control harvesting within them to ensure that concession boundaries are respected, etc. If the state proves unable or unwilling to control domestic and expatriate logging concessionaires, this may signal the start of a logging boom that could rapidly decimate the country’s wood resources. This could, in turn, unleash a wave of negative environmental consequences.”

The UN Security Council has also recognised the dangers, and unanimously passed a resolution calling on “States, international financial institutions, and other organizations to assist…in efforts to create appropriate national structures and institutions to control resource exploitation” in DRC. As yet, this has not happened, and there is little prospect of such institutions being established in the foreseeable future.

The experience in other countries, such as Cameroon, has been that, without very close regulation, the logging industry is extremely susceptible to corruption and malpractices, and that this can have a pervasive corrupting effect on government and administrative structures more widely. This could have serious, negative long-term results if allowed to develop in DRC.

Secondly, the World Bank's approach to the development of DRC's forests appears to be based on the assumption that the expansion of industrial logging will necessarily bring economic benefits to the country's poor people. However, there is very little evidence that this assumption is valid. In fact, the evidence from countries such as Cameroon has been that communities living in the forest - often the poorest of the poor - are further impoverished, as the logging industry can destroy resources upon which forest people depend for their very subsistence, including small-scale forest farms, supplies of fresh water, wild game, fruits and oils, and natural medicines.

The development of a large-scale logging industry in DRC could therefore have serious negative impacts on millions of poor people. As the ARD report has rightly noted:

“Given governance weaknesses, sustained peace could unleash a period of intense logging in many parts of the Congo, wreaking havoc on the environment, reducing or destroying biodiversity and materially damaging life chances of human groups most dependent on forests for their survival, e.g., the Congo pygmies (totalling some 4,000,000 people)”.
Thirdly, the approach being taken by the Bank also appears not to recognise that, as elsewhere in Africa, communities that have been present for hundreds or even thousands of years lay claim to large areas of Congo’s forests under ‘traditional rights’. In DRC, as elsewhere in the world, forest lands are claimed as the property of the state – and the new Forest Code reinforces this claim. However, the experience in countries such as Cameroon has been that the failure to properly recognise local peoples’ rights can result in serious, persistent and violent social conflict.

Fourthly, despite the massive environmental, social and economic ramifications of its interventions in DRC’s forest sector, none of the Bank’s internal safeguard policies –such as those relating to the environment, forestry and indigenous peoples - have yet been applied. The Bank’s support for the change in DRC’s forest laws in 2002 was processed as part of a Structural Adjustment Credit, and was therefore not subject to the safeguard policies. Further Bank support for the ‘operationalisation’ of the Forest Code in 2004 was similarly processed as a Structural Adjustment Credit, and so was also not subject to the safeguard policies.

As noted above, the Bank’s September 2003 support for the ‘zoning’ of DRC’s forests and the preparation of the logging concession system was given in the form of the EESRSP project. This was classed as a ‘Category B’ project, which triggered the Bank’s Environmental Assessment Policy (OP 4.01), the Forest Policy (OP 4.36) and the Involuntary Resettlement Policy (OP 4.12). However, the Bank also applied to this project OP 8.50, concerning ‘Emergency Assistance’, thereby postponing by 12 months the requirements to apply all the other safeguard policies. By April 2005, the necessary Social and Environmental Assessments for this project had still not even been started. More seriously still, despite the potentially devastating impact of the expansion of industrial logging concessions in DRC on the country’s many ‘Pygmy’ people, Bank staff did not even ‘trigger’ the Indigenous Peoples’ Policy (OD 4.20) for this project – perhaps because they were well aware that this policy would be very difficult to comply with.

As well as consistent circumvention of the formal safeguard policies, Bank staff have consistently refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with most national and international NGOs, and have used underhand tactics to try to diffuse criticism and subvert or co-opt critical organisations. For example, in December, 2003, the Rainforest Foundation wrote a detailed letter to the World Bank, seeking clarification about its involvement in forestry in DRC, and raising a number of the above concerns. By April 2005 - 16 months later - there had been no substantive response.

Early ‘meetings’ between the Bank and its national and international critics consisted of angry 90-minute lectures by the Bank’s resident representative. The Bank refused to discuss details of its activities or ‘cooperate’ with the Rainforest Foundation, saying that the Foundation had ‘misinformed the public about the Bank’ - but when asked to provide details of what it considered to be ‘misinformation’, refused to do so on the grounds that this would constitute ‘cooperation’.

At a national ‘Forest Forum’ organised by the Bank in DRC in November 2004, a draft ‘NGO statement’ due to be delivered by a Kinshasa-based organisation close to the Bank, was found to contain substantial tracts of text drafted by the Bank itself. This clumsy deceit was quickly identified and dealt with by genuine national NGOs – who instead issued, along with international NGOs including WWF, Greenpeace, Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and CARE, a call for a continuation of a de facto moratorium on the allocation of new industrial logging concessions until numerous strict conditions were complied with.

During 2004 and 2005, the Bank circulated various drafts of a ‘forest sector review’ report, which evidently aims to provide post-hoc justification for its proposed industrialisation of DRC’s forests. In a desperate effort to regain some kind of credibility for itself and to demonstrate support from NGOs, the Bank attributed acknowledgements to Greenpeace and Global Witness for ‘valuable input’ into this report – though it quickly transpired that Greenpeace had already stated in writing that it did not share the Bank’s fundamental analysis and did not want to be associated with the report; Global Witness staff had not even read the document into which the Bank was thanking them for providing input. By March 2005, perhaps recognising that it is facing serious criticism from DRC’s most active and articulate indigenous ‘Pygmy’ representatives, the Bank had started ‘organising’ other ‘Pygmy NGOs’ in Kinshasa.

Alongside all of this, the Bank has continued blatantly to mislead the public and the media about its intentions. In the only substantive explanation of its forestry activities in DRC available to the public, a carefully-worded ‘Press Backgrounder’ on the Bank’s website claims that:

“The Bank is not financing any industrial logging operation in the DRC. Current financial support to the forestry sector covers advisory services, studies, workshops, training, and institution strengthening. This support is being provided through several multi-sector operations including… the Emergency Economic and Social Reunification Support Project (EESRSP Cr. 3824DRC). The latter project has a forestry component of US$ 4 million that will finance the revision of forest contracts and forest land use planning.”

This statement neglects to mention the Bank’s support, under the EESRSP project, for ‘implementation of the forest concession system’, nor, as noted above, that the Bank’s own documentation (marked ‘Official Use Only’) shows that it will actually assess the success of this project by how many new logging concessions have been allocated.

Whilst the Bank has emphasised its concern that the development of DRC’s forests should benefit the people living there, it has done nothing to put this concern into practice. Instead, it has continued with the fatally misguided belief that, amidst a state of near-civil war, with a government that is largely only that in name and which mostly serves the personal vested interests of its members, with financial institutions known to be utterly corrupt, and with basic functions of governance still fragile at best, it would still be possible to establish a timber industry that would be environmentally acceptable, socially sound, and economically beneficial.

Few observers believe that this is anything other than ideological dogma promoted by promotion-hungry junior Bank officials who will ultimately be unaccountable for their actions. The Bank’s approach is likely to benefit few, other than foreign logging companies – especially those from Germany and France – which are known to have been lobbying the Bank at the highest level for a supportive stance towards the timber industry.

This is not to say that there is no role for the Bank in DRC’s forests - indeed, it is one of the few institutions that can muster both the expertise and the financial clout to promote a different future for Congo’s forests.

This is also not to say that there is no place for commercial exploitation of timber in DRC's forests. However, the development of the timber industry in Congo should not occur at the expense of the rights and livelihoods of perhaps tens of millions of poor forest-dwellers. Such a hasty approach could result in serious, long-term social conflict, will have negative effects on the most vulnerable in Congolese society, and will cause long-term or irreversible environmental damage.

Instead, the World Bank, the FAO and the Congolese Government should adopt an approach that will lessen the risks of conflict and environmental damage, whilst directly benefiting the poorest of the country’s population, those living in the forest. Specifically, the national and international authorities should, as suggested by Congolese and international civil society, rigorously uphold the moratorium on the expansion of industrial logging until such time as alternatives to industrial logging have been seriously considered, that local community lands have been properly mapped, and community rights recognised and the development of community forests has been tested and developed.

As a matter of highest priority, the Bank should support an independent investigation into: the Bank’s failure to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1457; the Bank’s failure to provide justification for its proposed course of action in DRC’s forests; the Bank’s failure to trigger or implement it’s internal safeguard policies; the behaviour of Bank staff in relation to national and international NGOs.

At the end of 2004, the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo remain as the largest relatively undisturbed rainforests on Earth. The international community has a momentous opportunity to explore and implement new approaches instead of those that have so dismally failed in other parts of the world.

By Simon Counsell, The Rainforest Foundation-UK, e-mail:,