An investigation by Global Witness has revealed how foreign companies are exploiting Congolese forests to feed Chinese demand for tropical hardwood. Researcher Colin Robertson spoke to chinadialogue from DRC.
See the full report from Global Witness: “The art of logging industrially in the Congo”
Olivia Boyd: What have you found is happening on the ground?
Colin Robertson: There’s a moratorium on logging concessions in place in the Congo – a freeze was put in place because there were so many bad contracts handed out in the 1990s. But logging is still being done by certain big companies. There is still a big demand for wood from the DRC, in particular for a tropical hardwood called Wenge, which is actually banned for export from, for example, Cameroon.
So people want to come to DRC to export this species. Because they can’t get new concessions, the solution that has been found is to give out what are called artisanal permits to industrial loggers. These permits are intended for communities who want to log in their forest on a small scale, but in reality they are being given out to companies, to foreign investors, often from China, from Lebanon, sometimes from Europe, who are coming to DRC to do industrial-scale logging.
The DRC government has not respected its own laws when it has been giving out its own permits. The law is quite clear about how many permits should be given out and to whom. But these rules are not being respected at all levels.
OB: Why not?
CR: Obviously logging is one of the few things that drives inward investment in DRC. This is one thing that foreign companies are keen to come here to do. It is economically driven.
Our researchers found that what logging leaves behind in terms of development is actually very small. The taxes paid by the companies are actually very small – a few thousand dollars for a permit. It’s not a huge input, but it’s seen as something that can benefit the state, or the officials allowing the logging.
OB: What are the environmental impacts of the logging?
CR: Genuine artisanal logging doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact because the people involved don’t have the ability to open up new roads into the forest. But with the way these permits are being used industrially, the companies often bring in bulldozers and other machinery. They’re opening logging roads into the forest, and after that the forest becomes degraded quite quickly. It also allows for illegal loggers and poachers to follow them in. It has a very serious environmental impact on the ground.
In the DRC, forest is actually quite well preserved now, but we don’t think it will stay that way forever because there is so much pressure on the forest for logging.
OB: How about the impacts on local people?
CR: We’ve seen that the foreign companies will give something to the community. There are lots of agreements signed. But what we find is that often these end up being things like gifts to the local chief, such as a motorbike, or cigarettes or alcohol. There isn’t really anything in terms of social contribution by the company, like building a school or a clinic.
There’s also a legal problem in DRC: according to the law, communities should have the right to create a community forest, which they can manage themselves and where they can make their own choices about whether to log or not to log. There’s a decree which has been on the desk of the prime minister for the last two years and that would provide the basis for communities to make decisions about forest management in their own interests. But at the moment, foreign companies are coming and taking the logging permits, and the communities aren’t able to have any control over what’s happening to their forest.
OB: What has this got to do with China?
CR: China has two roles. It’s becoming the biggest market for tropical hardwood from the DRC. Even the Lebanese players are, more and more, exporting to China, where there is a growing demand for luxury furniture and flooring. 2012 was the first year where more wood has gone to China from DRC than to the EU – it is now the main destination.
But it isn’t just about servicing the luxury furniture market in China. Our analysis shows that 20-25% of what is produced in China in terms of luxury hardwood flooring, for example, goes to North America and Europe. China increasingly does the processing. It’s a long supply chain.
This is important because in the EU, for example, you have legal regulations coming in next year on the trade of illegal timber, which say that you can’t put illegally harvested timber or wood products on the European market. This means European companies buying in China need to be more aware of where they’re buying from, to look more closely at the supply chain and make sure that there aren’t any grey areas.
In terms of the loggers themselves, there are more and more Chinese people here in DRC involved in logging activities, using these kinds of permits. It isn’t just China – there are also Lebanese and some Europeans – but the majority are Chinese. In Bandundu Province, where we did our research, the two biggest logging companies we visited were Chinese. The main one is called TERCO. It’s a registered Congolese company but it’s a partnership between a Chinese businessman and a Congolese businessman. Quite a lot of companies here work in that way, through partnerships.
OB: Are these companies actually breaking the law, given they’ve been granted permits?
CR: The way the companies see it, which is in some ways understandable, is that they have a permit signed by someone in authority. They don’t feel like they’re breaking the law.
But we would say that all sorts of companies working here have the responsibility not just to go to the authorities, get a piece of paper signed by someone and start working. They need to actually look at the law and make sure they are completely within the law. In a lot of countries, you can get a permit signed by an official, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are following regulations.
OB: What would you like to see happen next?
CR: Our main recommendation to the DRC government is to respect their own laws. We feel there should be a freeze on logging permits to foreign companies. And the community forest decree should be passed – that’s very important because communities will be able to have artisanal logging permits themselves, to benefit from and to manage their forests. We feel artisanal logging should be for these loggers, and not for foreign companies to come. The government should say publically that they’re going to stop granting logging permits to foreign companies.
There’s a new environment minister here. All of the permits were signed by the old minister. Now there’s a chance to bring in a new approach and make sure permits are signed in line with the law.
OB: Is there anything Chinese consumers can do?
CR: For the Chinese consumer, it might be quite difficult. But for Chinese buyers of timber – companies which are buying tropical hardwood from DRC – if they want to be able to make sure they can sell to Europe and North America, then they need to make sure they can track back to the level of concession where their timber comes from. If they can’t do that, there’s a strong chance that they are buying timber with a permit which hasn’t been issued in line with the law.