Deforestation in the Congo Rainforest

By Rhett A. Butler
LAST UPDATE: August 9, 2020

Central Africa's deforestation rate since 1990 has been the lowest of any major forest region in the world. However there are still a number of threats to the health of the Congo rainforest and its residents.

The biggest drivers of deforestation in the Congo rainforest over the past 20 years have been small-scale subsistence agriculture, clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, urban expansion, and mining. Industrial logging has been the biggest driver of forest degradation. However it's important not to understate the impact of logging in the region. Logging roads have opened up vast areas of the Congo to commercial hunting, leading to a poaching epidemic in some areas and a more than 60 percent drop in the region's forest elephant population in less than a decade. Furthermore, logging roads have provided access to speculators, colonists, and small-holders who clear land for agriculture.

Looking forward, the biggest threats to the Congo rainforest come from industrial logging and conversion for large-scale agriculture. Some environmentalists fear that the Congo could be on the verge of a massive increase in deforestation for palm oil, rubber, and sugar production.


Logging in the Congo Basin has increased with the gradual return of peace to the region. The timber industry has historically been a major employer in forest areas in the Congo basin, affording workers with basic healthcare, housing, and other services. However regulation of the industry has typically been lax, with incidents of companies harvesting areas outside their concessions and at logging intensities greater than what's allowed. Some entities operate without any permits. There have been a number of cases of conflict between communities and loggers.

Since the end of the war in D.R. Congo, the situation in the Congo Basin has been in flux. For the latest updates, see Mongabay's Congo logging feed.

Subsistence Agriculture

Most of the deforestation in the Congo is caused by local subsistence activities by poor farmers and villagers who rely on forest lands for agriculture and fuelwood collection. Slash-and-burn is commonly used for clearing forest.

Typically, poor farmers and colonists gains access to forest lands by following logging roads, although in the past few years civil strife has driven many Central Africans deep into the rainforest to escape the widespread violence.

Civil Strife

Central Africa has been plagued with violence since the mid-90s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have moved through the forests of the Congo, stripping vegetation and devastating wildlife populations. National parks like Virunga -- home to the endangered mountain gorilla -- were looted and park staffers slaughtered. Refugee camps bordering parks added to the pressure on parklands.


The Congo Basin has some of the world richest mineral deposits. Mining operations are poorly monitored and financial returns are prioritized over social impacts and the long-term health effects -- much less to the environmental impact.

The Bushmeat Trade

Today the visitor to many Central African cities can purchase the meat of virtually any forest animal. Demand for bushmeat is driven by the desire for protein, not necessarily the animal source of the protein, the demand for which varies from market to market. In Gabon, McRae reports that annual per capita consumption of bushmeat may reach eight pounds annually.

The availability of bushmeat is made possible by the extractive industries like logging and mining that build roads which opens up previously inaccessible rainforest to hunters and settlers. Hunters make a living by selling bushmeat to passing loggers, traders, and local villagers. The majority of bushmeat is brought to city markets by loggers.

Regional bushmeat hunting is expected is increase as commercial logging expands in the Congo Basin.


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