Vast forests with trees each worth £4,000 sold for a few bags of sugar
John Vidal in Kisangani
Wednesday April 11, 2007
The Odzala rainforest, part of the national park in central Democratic
Republic of Congo. Elsewhere, huge tracts of unprotected forest have
been snapped up by loggers for but a fraction of their true worth.
Photograph: Michael Nichols/Getty
Lamoko, 150 miles down the Maringa river, sits on the edge of a massive
stretch of virgin rainforest in central Democratic Republic of Congo
(DRC). On February 8 2005, representatives of a major timber firm arrived
to negotiate a contract with the traditional landowners.
Few in the village realised that the talks would transform all their
lives, but in just a few hours, the chief, who had received no legal
advice and did not realise that just one tree might be worth more than
£4,000 in Europe, had signed away his community's rights in the forest for
In return for his signed permission to log thousands of hectares for
exotic woods such as Afromosia (African teak) and sapele, the company
promised to build Lamoko and other communities in the area three simple
village schools and pharmacies. In addition, the firm said it would give
the chief 20 sacks of sugar, 200 bags of salt, some machetes and a few
hoes. In all, it was estimated that the gifts would cost the company
It was the kind of "social responsibility" agreement that is encouraged
by the World Bank, but when the villagers found out that their forest
had been "sold" so cheaply, they were furious.
They complained to the local and central government that there had been
no proper consultation, that the negotiations had been conducted in an
"arrogant" manner, and that people had been forced to sign the
document. They demanded that the company pull out.
Since February 2005, logging roads have been driven deep into the
forests near Lamoko and the company has started extracting and exporting
trees, but the villages have yet to see their schools and pharmacies.
"We asked them to provide wood for our coffins and they even refused
that," said one man who asked to remain anonymous.
The Lamoko agreement is just one of many contracts, or concessions,
that European companies have signed with tribal chiefs in the DRC as the
country begins to recover from a decade of civil wars and dictatorship.
But according to a Greenpeace report released today, Lamoko did better
than many communities. Some contracts seen by the Guardian show only
promises of sugar, salt and tools worth about $100 (£55) in return for
permission to log. Others have reported that pledges made three years
ago have still not been fulfilled. The report, which took two years to
compile, claims that industrial logging backed by the World Bank is now
out of control. "Younger people feel that elders have failed to look
after the long-term interests of the community," it says.
Last week many community leaders told the Guardian that their villages
would sink into destitution if logging went ahead. As many as 40
million of the poorest people in Africa depend on the Congolese forests and
all the concessions handed out by the transition government in May 2002
are in inhabited areas. More than a third are home to pygmy
"If the trees go, then we will have nothing. We will be consigned to
poverty forever. The forests are our only hope. If they go, we only
become poorer", said one man who lives near Kisangani. Like most people in
the area, he did not want to give his name for fear of intimidation from
local authorities, who are known to be mired in corruption.
"The companies are obliged to employ local people, but they bring in
their own people and we are left at best with unskilled jobs that pay the
minimum wage - less than 50p a day," said another man.
It is believed that 20 foreign-owned forestry companies are active in
the DRC, and that Chinese and other logging groups are also seeking to
gain concessions. The companies should be prevented from doing so by a
moratorium negotiated by the World Bank in 2002 as part of an initiative
to control the forestry industry.
Most of the major logging companies, including Danzer, Trans-M, TB,
NST, Olan, and Sicobois, have concession contracts signed after the World
bank moratorium, but although there is an investigation into their
legality the majority are expected to be rubber stamped this year.
"Most of the companies have benefited from the World Bank's failure to
ensure that the moratorium it negotiated with the transitional Congo
DRC government has been enforced," said Greenpeace's Africa forests
campaigner, Stephan van Praet.
The companies, which export both logs and sawn timber, supply wood all
over Europe but considerable amounts are thought to be shipped to
Britain, mostly as finished products such as flooring, windows, furniture
African teak wood is protected by global agreement and cannot be
exported from some tropical countries such as Cameroon, which have few trees
left, but there are still no restrictions on its export from the DRC.
Greenpeace and other international forestry groups say the fate of the
Congo forests depends on the World Bank and other donors, including
Britain, rejecting industrial logging, demanding a comprehensive land-use
plan for a country that is effectively lawless, and insisting that the
government tackles corruption.
The bank accepts that logging could destroy the forests in a short
time, leading to immense social problems.
"If we do nothing it is certain that the forests will disappear and
poverty will increase. Not one dollar of tax that has been collected has
returned to the provinces," said Kankonde Mukadi, the forest officer for
the World Bank in Kinshasa.
There is also concern because rainforests provide important carbon
reserves. Up to a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions are now linked
directly to tropical deforestation, the report says.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007