Caught up in the battle against Congo’s irresponsible loggers

“It’s too far away”, “there’s nothing to see or do there”, “it’s too hard to get to…” The reasons people find to avoid the long journey to some of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s many remote forested areas are numerous.

Multinational logging companies and their local subsidiaries have no such qualms, and face few restrictions. They know they’ll find valuable and endangered tropical tree species, such as Congolese Sapele, Wenge, Iroko, Mahogany or Afromosia. Forty percent of the timber they fell finds its way to China, and another 40% goes to Europe, to end up as flooring, decking, garden furniture or as other, generally high-end products.

Illegal Logging Media Tour in the DRC. 08/15/2014 © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

What does industrial logging mean for the people and communities who already live in these areas? Do logging companies adequately compensate people for their loss of livelihood? Do they enable development for residents who are desperately poor despite their country’s potentially staggering wealth of natural resources?

These were some of the questions I sought answers to on my trip to villages near the city of Lisala in DRC’s Equateur province, the results of which we’re publicising today.

Chief in my mind as I departed was something that had occurred in the village of Yasilika in 2011. Siforco, a company owned at the time by the Swiss-German timber multinational Danzer, collaborated with local soldiers and police to violently suppress opposition by local villagers to the company’s logging operations. Years of campaigning by Greenpeace drew attention to the case and finally led to Danzer being kicked out of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC).

But was this an isolated case?

It seems not.

I made my way through chaotic traffic along roads jammed with trucks where, close to two logging concessions, near Lisala, I met people from various communities. The Belgian company Sicobois has been operating around the Moundounga, Mbagenza and Popolo areas for going on 17 years. During that time their work has been far from squeaky clean. Indeed, in January this year Greenpeace intercepted a shipment of illegal timber from the company at the port of Caen, in France.

Illegal Logging Media Tour in the DRC. 08/08/2014 © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

In Bokweli, residents have long been at odds with Sicobois. At the heart of the dispute, they told us, are the social clauses that all companies negotiate with communities prior to being allowed to exploit all the valuable timber in the forests.

Sicobois was obliged to construct a school and other essential infrastructure in Bokweli.  The school was built way back in 2005, but never really finished and left to simply languish. Built of clay brick, it is not fit for purpose and its 360 pupils are forced to study in deplorable conditions.

Residents say they feel abandoned by both the state and local authorities. Everyone we spoke to expressed only anger. In July this year, people had had enough. They took over equipment belonging to the company and tried to force the suspension of logging operations in the forest.

The police and military stepped in on behalf of the company. Although negotiations remain deadlocked, Sicobois continues to operate and continues to export.

Illegal Logging Media Tour in the DRC. 08/12/2014 © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

Lucy Poki, the wife of the community’s former chief, told us: “Our trees are felled, exported, sometimes abandoned. The school is in a disastrous state, it is not maintained. We have only the bark of large trees to make coffins for our dead… We do not know where we are headed with industrial logging.”

Gbégbé Bokoyo, the chairman of the management committee of Popolo community, a few miles further down the road, said frankly: “The company does not meet its commitments. We would go regularly to Lisala to negotiate with the company and yet come away with nothing every time… They do not want people to know the real [number of] cubic metres of timber felled nor in particular which species were exploited.”

To the east of Lisala, along the main N6 road, in the heart of a concession previously run by Cotrefor, we heard the same kind of stories about similar conflicts, resulting in the same bitter feelings. A few months ago, the company simply upped and left, with no explanation, taking all its equipment and leaving many logs simply lying around.

Philippe Linduku Mbomga, the former chairman of the management committee of the Boli South community repeatedly urged the company to meet its social obligations. In response, the company accused of him instigating the erection of barriers to prevent the company from carrying out its work. It is a charge he deinies but that did not prevent him being arrested for the first time in April 2013. He says was badly beaten during the 10 days that he was imprisoned. He was released and then jailed again. His release cost him 200,000 Congolese francs (around €180 or US$220).

Illegal Logging Media Tour in the DRC. 08/09/2014 © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

In the social contract with the company, six schools, a health centre and a new stretch of road were all listed as to be constructed. The actual achievements are: two schools, one unfinished school, no health centre and no road section.

Meanwhile Cotrefor exploited large amounts of Iroko, the CITES-listed Afromosia tree, African Mahogany and Sapelle. Greenpeace activists were in La Rochelle, last year, when some of the timber from this concession arrived in the port.

Earlier this year a report by the respected British think-tank Chatham House claimed that 90% of the timber felled in the DRC could be classified as illegal. We believe the country’s entire forestry sector is in a state of ‘organised chaos’. It is ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of this chaos.

A new community forestry decree was signed in the summer of this year, but there is still little awareness that it exists.

It is time people recognised that the future of forest management does not have to be dictated by companies that have little respect for communities but that the people themselves should decide what is done with their land and their forests.

Take action to help Congo’s communities manage their own forests.

Sylvain Trottier is a communications manager with Greenpeace France.

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