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Concern over Congo logging
By Kate Eshelby
BBC Focus On Africa magazine
Monday, 16 August, 2004, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Original Article
Copyright 2004 BBC News

Table of Contents
Unless otherwise specified, this article was written by Rhett A. Butler [citation]

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Environmental groups have expressed concern at Congo's plans to open up its rainforest for increased commercial logging.

The country's government, currently $4.9 billion in debt, has been placing greater emphasis on the growth of the timber industry in the Congo Basin, which has the world's second largest stretches of virgin rainforest after the Amazon in South America.

The logging policy has been encouraged by the World Bank - which makes its loans to the government conditional on the forest being opened up - but conservation groups are worried that the bidding process is far from transparent.

"Lack of transparency is a major reason for concern in the Congolese forestry sector," Filip Verbelen, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace, told BBC World Service's Focus On Africa magazine.

"Logging concessions are often allocated via discretionary procedures rather than a public bidding process. This leaves the door open for negotiations between private companies and government officials."

Illegal practices

The timber industry employs around 10% of Congo's workforce, and companies are contracted by the government to provide basic services such as schools and hospitals - Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), the largest company operating in the industry, has built a hospital that ranks as one of the best in the country.

However, free health care is only available to CIB employees, making the hospital out of bounds for most people - including the Ba'aka pygmies, the indigenous population of the forest.

Few of them are employed by logging companies and their traditional lifestyle is under threat as the forest opens up to loggers.

However, despite these issues, the government is keen to promote its forest management plans as sustainable. It has introduced legislation only allowing for the felling of a few key timber species that sell for high prices on world markets.

But although some companies are adhering to government policy, many others are involved in illegal logging - and it is these that pose the most severe threat to the forest.

Many of these companies operate on a very intensive scale. Some are believed to ignore cutting regulations and bribe poorly-paid government officials tasked with monitoring the industry's activities.

Certainly, trees valuable to the Ba'aka for their fruits, oil, medicinal bark and for the construction of pirogues are rapidly disappearing under the loggers' saws.

For example, the Sapelli, an African mahogany, is one of the most highly-prized trees on the world timber market - and it is also host to a species of caterpillar, an essential food source, that emerge towards the end of the rainy season when hunting and fishing is limited.

A sack of smoked caterpillars can sell for up to $100, and just one tree can provide up to five sacks per year. This money remains in the local economy, whereas a large proportion of the money from logging leaves the country.

But such income generating practices are disappearing with intensive logging.

'All we hear is hunger'

Extensive logging is posing a serious threat to primary forest, which in turn is leading to an inevitable increase in conservation.

An initiative to protect the forest area was launched in 2002 with the creation of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in South Africa.

The CBFP has planned a network of new and expanded national parks which will cover 40% of the entire Congo Basin. US President George Bush's administration is helping to fund the CBFP - a move seen by some as a measure to counter criticism levelled at Mr Bush for his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming in 2001.

As the world's biggest polluter, the US is able to earn "carbon credits" for its preservation initiatives in Congo without having to cut any greenhouse gas emissions back home.

Conservation policy has also come in for criticism for often having little regard for indigenous populations - for example, the Ba'aka have not yet been informed about the CFBP national parks development.

"Local forest communities and civil society groups have so far been completely excluded from the initiative, which is primarily about 'partnerships' between international conservation organisations and international loggers," said Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation.

Meanwhile the government has asked all companies to provide "eco guards" to police the forests to stop illegal hunting and trade in bush meat, which is the staple of the Ba'aka.

But ironically, these regulations are undermined by corruption as the trade is organised by members of local elites who ensure that "their" bush meat sellers are not targeted by the eco guards - and instead, the eco guards have been accused of victimising the Ba'aka.

They claim they have been prevented from moving freely and according to their seasonal needs.

"We get so much suffering because of eco guards," Nyaku, a Ba'aka from Mbua, near the administrative centre of Pokola in northern Congo, told Focus On Africa.

"We can't go and find things in the forest as we used to. All we hear is hunger."


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