The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, second only to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The country’s forests have recently drawn international attention, not only due to the challenges posed by climate change, but also because of the struggle being waged by Congolese civil society in general, and the environmental movement in particular, to stop the government from lifting its current moratorium on new logging concessions.
In the province of Katanga in south-eastern DRC, another type of forest predominates, known as the Miombo or Zambezian woodlands. The Miombo has been defined as “a mixed plant formation with a thin layer of grass species beneath a population of trees between 15 to 20 metres in height; the canopies of the trees, often umbrella-shaped, touch or almost touch, but their foliage is not very dense, which means the area as a whole is well illuminated.”  The Miombo woodlands are rich in biodiversity, with regard to both animal and plant species. They are also vital to the people who live there. Their importance has become even more crucial after a decade of civil wars and ongoing economic crisis, which has left the majority of Miombo dwellers cut off from the formal economy. Under these conditions, it is the woodlands that provide them with food, medicine, building materials, and so on.
Consequently, the destruction of the woodlands endangers the survival of these local populations. There are numerous factors responsible for the gradual shrinking of the Kiombo woodlands in Katanga, and one of the principal causes is mining.
Mining activities inevitably require deforestation. Every day large tracts of forest and woodland are cleared to allow access to mineral deposits, as well as for the processing of the minerals, since the mining companies operating in Katanga use archaic techniques that do not respect the environment. Even worse, for some time now mining operations have been spreading towards the province’s so-called listed forests.
According to the current legislation in the DRC, namely the Forest Code passed on 2 August 2002, listed or protected forests are state-owned assets. This heading covers national parks (strict nature reserves), game reserves, urban forests, botanical gardens and reforested areas controlled by the state or decentralized agencies (articles 12 and 13 of the Forest Code).
In the province of Katanga there are two national parks and fifteen game reserves, of which five are in operation. One of these is the Basse Kando Reserve, an annex to Upemba National Park in the district of Kolwezi. It was created by Decree Nº 52/48 of 27 March 1957, which has been extended several times since then, including most recently by the Ministry of the Environment and Conservation of Nature, Waters and Forests in December 2006. Ironically, it was around this same time that the competent government agencies began to grant mining concessions for the same area. As a result, companies like the Bazano Group, Tenke Fungurume Mining, Semex, SOMIKA and Phelps Dodge moved in and proceeded to take samples, conduct drilling, clear forests, and essentially destroy the reserve. As a result of these operations, the elephants that once comprised a major part of the local fauna have migrated to Zambia.
Civil society organizations vigorously condemned these abuses, denouncing the violation of the legal prohibition on granting mining concessions in listed forests, as well as the large-scale deforestation taking place in an area threatened by desertification. The Environment Ministry’s response was to remove the reserve from the list of protected areas – a move that was blatantly illegal, given that the reserve was de-listed without prior consultation with all stakeholders or an environmental impact assessment, and thus violates the spirit of article 19 of the Forest Code.
The gradual disappearance of the forests and woodlands of Katanga is cause for extreme concern. Local populations are facing ever greater degrees of poverty and hardship, rivers and streams are drying up, and the rainy season is becoming increasingly shorter. The few forest restoration efforts undertaken are insignificant compared to the damage wrought by the mining companies.
By Christian Bwenda, Programme Director, PREMICONGO, email: email@example.com. PREMICONGO (Protection of the Miombo Ecoregions in the Congo) is an environmental NGO based in Lubumbashi, capital of the province of Katanga, DRC.
(1) Aubréville, cited in Malaisse, F. (1997) Se nourrir en forêt claire africaine: Approche écologique et nutritionnelle, p.21