No journey too far to protect Congo’s forests

The Democratic Republic of Congo is roughly the same size as Western Europe. However its infrastructure is a far different proposition, and as a result it is rare – verging on impossible – that people from different parts of the country are able to meet in person.

The Congo River in the DRC © Clément Tardif/Greenpeace

But that’s just what happened last week in Kinshasa thanks to Réseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN) – a Congolese based network of courageous environmental and social justice civil society organisations, activists, lobbyists and researchers.

Member groups are spread far and wide across this vast nation where they monitor illegal logging and violations of human rights amongst local residents by the industrial logging sector. They provide assistance to communities and indigenous peoples in what is often a daily struggle to have their land and their rights respected.

For Greenpeace this network is vital. We are a partner of RRN and they are our eyes and ears on the ground in remote forest locations, helping us give voice to violations that otherwise would never be heard. But it is a perilous existence and hence why it elicited such joy for me to see everyone together.

One example is GAJEN, a small Lisala-based non-governmental organisation in Equateur province, run by Willy Lilembo. It is a town that is only reachable by boat or plane from Kinshasa. Last year Willy revealed how workers of the Sicobois logging company were using violence against local community members unhappy with the destructive practices taking place there. As a result the company chose the path of intimidation once again by filing a legal complaint against him.

Or take Papa Emmanuel, based in Mushie, Bandundu. Industrial companies there, the majority of them Chinese, systematically use illegal permits to access precious wood species including Wengé. He travels tirelessly around the vast province and knows exactly where the illegalities are taking place. Papa Emmanuel manages to get this information to the outside world despite a mountain of logistical problems, not least the lack of electricity and often a phone network.

The sheer size and remoteness of the forested areas of Congo coupled with an institutional lack of oversight and control is one of the main reasons companies continue to arrive in the DRC and help themselves to its vast abundant natural resources – often with total impunity.

The gaping flaws in Congo’s forest protection and management were at the forefront of debates in Kinshasa. A representative of CODELT, a group of environmental lawyers, even put forward the alarming suggestion that not a single log leaving the country has been harvested legally.

Community Gathering in a Village in the DRC © Clément Tardif/Greenpeace

As Greenpeace recently publicised the industrial logging sector brings little tangible benefit to the communities whose forests it plunders. Indeed intimidation and conflict are more likely the daily reality for people living and working in or near logging areas.

So what does the future hold? For most groups in Kinshasa it was patently clear we need alternative models to the industrial concession based one. The architecture of this system is not fit for purpose and is leading to deforestation and forest degradation, bringing benefits to no one except companies and officials.

Alternatives were presented. These include community based forest management, agroforestry and new ways of financing forest protection and co-management of forests. The ideas are good and Greenpeace has recently launched a petition calling for people to encourage the government to fully back the recently signed community forestry decree.

But although the DRC government acknowledges the problems its forests and communities face, it seems powerless or unwilling to fully address them.

Representatives from the Ministry of Environment were conspicuous by their absence at the Kinshasa meeting. Yet many had accepted an invitation to join. The logging industry federation (FIB) also decided at the last minute that the meeting was not their cup of tea either.

It is not a long or difficult process to work out why they swerved the meeting – but their absence is telling. Only by holding officials and companies to account and forcing them to face the reality that is the organised chaos of the logging sector will progress be made.

So please help us and our local partners in DRC by signing the petition to demand progress on community forestry and ensure the moratorium on industrial logging is maintained and enforced.

Danielle Van Oijen is a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Netherlands

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