Our Burning Planet

ISS TODAY OP-ED

Balancing protection from criminal enterprise and profit to preserve carbon sink rainforest in Congo Basin

Balancing protection from criminal enterprise and profit to preserve carbon sink rainforest in Congo Basin
Aerial view of Monboyo River and peatland forest of Salonga National Park south-east of Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Greenpeace is documenting ground-level research into satellite data on vast peatland areas recently discovered by scientists in the swamps of the Congo Basin rainforest, as well as affected communities and the natural environment. The most carbon-rich tropical region in the world is estimated to store the equivalent of three years’ worth of total global fossil fuel. (Photo: Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace)

The One Forest Summit delivered more pledges, but accelerated action is vital to stop illegal logging and deforestation. 

The Congo Basin is the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest and its biggest carbon sink. Yet more than a quarter of its forests could vanish by 2050 if deforestation, caused mostly by illegal logging, continues unchecked. The consequences for the region and beyond are dire. And despite new pledges, there’s little sign of the urgent follow-up action required.

For the world’s forests, there have been some positive outcomes at recent high-level meetings. The global target agreed at the 2022 United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Conference in Montreal was to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030. That followed a declaration to halt deforestation and land degradation by 2030 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in 2021. The COP26 parties affirmed the importance of forests in limiting global warming to 1.5°C. 

French president Emmanuel Macron and Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba organised the One Forest Summit on 1 and 2 March 2023 in Libreville, Gabon. The idea was to get fresh commitments and concrete plans to advance scientific cooperation on forest ecosystems, foster sustainable value chains in the forestry sector, and source funds innovatively. 

The Congo Basin, which spans six countries in Central Africa, should be at the heart of global climate action. It absorbs 4% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and its peatlands alone store 30 billion metric tonnes of carbon — the equivalent of three years’ worth of global fossil fuel emissions.

Yet the forests are increasingly at risk. One study calculated that deforestation increased by 5% in 2021. (Global deforestation rates must drop by 10% annually to meet the Glasgow declaration goal.) 

Driving deforestation is illegal logging by multinationals, local criminals and armed groups, and corruption. This is to meet the high demand in Europe, North America and Asia for Congo Basin timbers such as rosewood and African teak. Countries the World Bank classified in 2020 as fragile and conflict-affected “supplied about half of China’s hardwood logs and most of its tropical logs,” according to Forest Trends. These include the Solomon Islands, Laos, Mozambique, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to more than half of the Congo Basin’s rainforest by area. Although it outlawed illegal logging in 2002, the government lacks the resources for forest surveillance in a country a quarter the area of the United States (US). 

A 2014 Chatham House report calculated that 87% of logging in the DRC was illegal, a percentage that has remained largely unchanged. A 2018 Global Witness report asserted that a European timber business with the largest holding of logging concessions in the DRC was operating illegally on 90% of those concessions.

In Cameroon, an established crime syndicate facilitates the illegal movement of timber from remote forests to illicit markets in Nigeria, Vietnam and China. Transnational terror groups operate from bases across the Congo Basin, killing forest guards and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars by exploiting forest resources to finance their activities. 

The deforestation of the Congo Basin has potentially catastrophic consequences. It increases climate emissions and is predicted to reduce rainfall in Ethiopia and across the Sahel, damaging agriculture and exacerbating climate migration. Deforestation threatens the 75 million people whose livelihoods rely on forest health. Wildlife habitats are equally vulnerable — 39 mammal species and a third of the plant species in the Congo Basin are found nowhere else. 

Climate finance is crucial to protect the Congo Basin as a critical climate asset. Historically, the region has received relatively less bilateral funding than South East Asia and the Amazon Basin. At COP26, a dozen donors including the US, United Kingdom and European Union, pledged $1.5-billion between 2021 and 2025 to protect the Congo Basin. But this was criticised as inadequate and is yet to materialise. 

Funding is urgently needed to boost policies against illegal logging and deforestation. Although the area is immense, governments must police the Congo Basin rainforest — perhaps starting with an inter-agency task force. 

In 2021, Cameroon deployed soldiers to help rangers crack down on poachers on its eastern border with the Central African Republic. Forest guards must match the sophistication of organised crime groups, incorporating paramilitary training, covert and aerial surveillance, improved weaponry and community relationship building for intelligence gathering. 

A multinational joint task force among the countries, all of whom are members of the Central African Forests Commission, is another potential solution. The commission is a regional authority responsible for coordinating and making decisions regarding forest ecosystem conservation and sustainable management.

National forest ministries can integrate public whistleblower policy with projects that involve civil society in forest governance. In Cameroon, community volunteers are trained to use satellite-linked phones to document illegal logging and make toll-free calls to report suspicious activity to the police, forest ministry and national anti-corruption commission. 

The Republic of the Congo passed a law in 2020 to combat forest exploitation and illegal logging. It enshrines local communities and indigenous people’s involvement in forest governance and establishes a community forestry scheme.

Regional initiatives must also target global industry players in Europe, Asia and North America. Trade regulatory agencies in the global north and Asia need to implement transparent measures that ensure responsible sourcing of timber from the Congo Basin. 

A robust timber certification process for the entire supply chain is essential. It exists in some form in the global north and Asia, but stringent implementation for tropical timber is lacking. Governments should create tropical timber groups with representatives that include importers, retailers and environmental advocacy groups to monitor the certification process. DM

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, ENACT, Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

First published by ISS Today.

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