Picture: EDUCATION IMAGES/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
Picture: EDUCATION IMAGES/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

It’s part of our planet’s second lung, and one of the largest expanses of virgin forest still remaining on earth. Seen from the window of a plane, the Congolese rainforest is a truly remarkable sight: a swathe of green treetops resembling a giant broccoli head that covers most of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

As the world slowly awakens to the threat of climate change, the forest’s future has come into focus as a key issue in determining the longevity of our planet and life as we know it.

While the Amazon and the forests of Southeast Asia have already shrunk as a result of logging, agriculture and mining, the Congolese rainforest has remained largely untouched. But in the past decade deforestation there has accelerated to about 1mha/year, mostly because of the expansion of agriculture and the production of charcoal, the only source of energy available to most of the population.

Illegal logging has also taken off. This is due to demand from China as well as a growing local need, and the opportunity it presents for criminals.

Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DEAGOSTINI
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DEAGOSTINI

How best to protect the rainforest in the long term — given these new threats — has become a heated debate involving the Congolese government, international NGOs and global governance bodies.

In particular, a moratorium on new logging concessions, instituted in 2002 due to poor governance, has become the centre of discussion on the forest’s management.

The Congolese government, looking for new sources of revenue, is considering lifting the ban. A controversial proposal by the French Development Agency (AFD) appears to support this. The AFD argues that, with the right support, industrial logging companies could exploit the forest sustainably.

“A well-managed exploitation is the guarantee for forest conservation,” says AFD DRC project manager Philippe Bosse. He says the AFD plan aims to support the replacement of artisanal loggers with a professional sector. This will generate revenue for the state, thus solving problems arising from corruption, unpaid taxes and illegal exploitation. The proposal is under review by the Norwegian government under its Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI).

However, the plan has been rejected by 30 international scientists in an open letter to Norway’s minister of climate & the environment, Vidar Helgesen. In it, they suggest that important areas of peatland, a fragile ecosystem that stores carbon, have been discovered in the rainforest, and these require protection.

Several international NGOs have also denounced the project as irresponsible.

“There is a lack of transparency in the DRC,” says Greenpeace senior forest campaign manager Irene Wabiwa. “It is impossible to lift the moratorium without exposing the forest. AFD claims that industrial companies will be more reliable than artisanal loggers, but our experience indicates the opposite.”

Political instability and corruption are also of concern, as they could transform the reopening of the forest for industrial logging into a free-for-all.

President Joseph Kabila’s final presidential mandate ended in 2016, but a date to elect his successor has only just been wrestled out of his administration. Though the poll has been set for December 2018, many believe this deadline won’t be respected.

Politicians have been playing a game of musical chairs, vying for government positions that they use for personal gain.

Last year, Greenpeace exposed a former minister of the environment for illegally allocating logging concessions in violation of the moratorium. A new minister has since cancelled them. But a quick succession of ministers in this portfolio in recent years has made it difficult for government to establish a clear vision for the forest’s management.

Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DEAGOSTINI
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DEAGOSTINI

This has also complicated government’s relations with its international partners. The DRC is still waiting to access funds that CAFI allocated in 2016 for the protection of the forest.

Joseph Katanga, government’s forest adviser and one of the few continuous figures in the ministry, admits to being torn by competing forces. He puts it bluntly: “It is not a priority for the government to protect the forest.”

Katanga blames the situation on the international community, which he says has failed to take the DRC seriously. He points out that Brazil has been given billions of dollars for forest conservation — all the while continuing to overexploit the resource.

“Do we have to start destroying our forest to start receiving something?” he asks.

Like Katanga, experts say that recognising the DRC’s contribution to climate change mitigation and allocating funds to help communities move away from subsistence farming and charcoal use — the main drivers of deforestation in DRC — would be a more efficient solution than reopening the country to commercial logging.

“If we improve agricultural productivity, the population and the forest will benefit,” Katanga argues.

But the main requirement — perhaps the hardest to achieve — is political will.

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