Congolese groups unite to demand scrutiny of forest policies

5 April 2004

NGOs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have allied to challenge industrial logging in their country’s rainforests. In February they appealed to the World Bank and other agencies to halt a plan which would make up to 60 million hectares of rainforest available to logging companies in the coming years. The dispute is instructive about the Bank’s approach to human rights and international law.

Roger Muchuba of the human rights group Héritiers de la Justice, said: “civil society is taking the initiative of informing the population about the new laws, as the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have so far failed to.” Adolphine Muley, of the Union of Indigenous Women said: “our voices have to be heard when it comes to making decisions about the forest in which we live.”

Congolese civil society groups from across the country wrote to the Minister for the Environment, Waters and Forests, the World Bank and the FAO. They argued that the planned development of the DRC‘s forests “will have major repercussions for the rights and livelihoods of millions of Congolese people, and serious and irreversible consequences for this vital resource. The words and good intentions of the World Bank and the FAO have thus far not resulted in any concrete action in response to the concerns of civil society.”

civil society is taking the initiative of informing the population about the new laws, as the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have so far failed to

They argue that the forest policy lacks popular legitimacy and risks “being rejected, creating innumerable social conflicts.” This is worrying as the long war in the DRC was partly caused by conflicts over natural resources. Joseph Bobia, spokesperson for the Congolese development organisation, CENADEP, said: “by working to ensure that local communities’ rights and access to the forests are recognised in the new laws, we hope to prevent future conflict between local communities, loggers and the administration”. Community representatives have called for a moratorium on implementation until there is more transparency and consultation.

They also argue that the new Forestry Code does not comply with World Bank policies nor with the DRC’s obligations under international treaties on biological diversity or human rights. The Rainforest Foundation, a UK NGO, points out that it has seen “no evidence of steps taken by the Bank to ensure proper compliance with its operational policies, nor that a Strategic Environmental Assessment has actually been undertaken”.

The DRC Forestry Code was directly modelled on the one produced by the Bank for Cameroon about ten years ago. The Rainforest Foundation points out that the experience in Cameroon demonstrates that “the logging industry is extremely susceptible to corruption and malpractices which can have a pervasive corrupting effect on government and administrative structures more widely”.

The World Bank says it is aware of these issues and is working with the Government “to remove policy distortions, and to prevent large-scale speculation that would deprive the Congolese people of future socio-economic benefits from the forest”. It aims to strengthen government capacity to enforce its new forest policies including through independent monitoring. It claims that there is evidence of its strategy working, for example the “globally unprecedented” cancellation of timber concessions totalling 25 million hectares and the institution of a moratorium on the allocation of logging contracts until transparent procedures are adopted.

The Rainforest Foundation accepts that the World Bank has taken “some positive steps to reform the timber industry in DRC“. For example, it has pressed the Government to revoke logging concessions allocated to a Portuguese company. The Bank has also urged an increase in the level of forestry taxes, but these changes have been resisted by the logging industry. Civil society groups urge the Bank not to rely on the government alone, but to ensure that transparency in the forest sector is guaranteed in law, so that civil society gets access to the information necessary to monitor compliance.

There is very little time to resolve this dispute, both because of the fragility of the situation in the DRC and because the World Bank forest project ends in October this year.