Logging and conservation projects have spurred rapid development in the Sangha forest region of the Congo. But what’s the human and environmental cost? Laudes Martial Mbon travels to the depths of the Congo Basin rainforest to investigate.


"It is clear then, that outside Pokola, the conservation and logging projects which represent a ‘forest Eldorado’ for some, are negatively impacting the lives of many. The wealth they are generating is not trickling down. What’s more, when it comes to forest protection, the trees are standing - but peoples’ livelihoods, traditions, habitats and culture are being trashed."

Sangha Department, Republic of Congo. Pokola lies 800 kilometres north of Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, on the left bank of a bend in the vast Sangha River.

Before Congo’s independence in 1960, the town was a small, isolated fishing village. Most outsiders knew little of it, or of the Sangha region itself - other than that it was covered by dense primary forest, and winding streams.  

Today Pokola’s population numbers 13,000. It’s a place of modern buildings, including a hospital and a school, with internet and free electricity for the entire population, and a distinctly multicultural flavour, as Angolans, Rwandans, Cameroonians and other émigrés mingle with locals.  

The driver for this startling transformation is visible through the airplane window on the flight there: forest canopies broken up with heavy, industrial skidding tracks used for transporting logs.

Forests covers 60% of the Congo, which is one of Africa’s most sparsely populated countries, and timber is the country’s second biggest export, after oil. Pokola is a vital hub in this industry: it is home to the headquarters of Congolaise Industrielle Des Bois (CIB), a subsidiary of Singapore’s Olam Group, which manages 2.1 million hectares of Congolese forest, and is considered as the jewel in the company’s crown.

In some ways, CIB’s operations in Pokola represent a model of development for other forestry companies, and it’s no surprise that some local civil society groups want it adopted nationally. But behind this story of economic boom, lies another more complex and cautionary tale: one which holds valuable lessons for logging and conservation projects across Africa.  

Historically marginalised people

For a project to truly benefit marginalised forest communities in the region, a good understanding of the historical context is vital. The Sangha region is home to many indigenous groups including the Bagombés, Bénzélés and the Baka, a hunter gatherer, traditionally nomadic people, who live predominantly in the rainforests of northern Congo, as well as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic (CAR).

The forest is their home and indispensable to their survival. So they have suffered greatly from the destruction of their forests and wildlife around them. There was hope therefore, in 2011, when Congo passed what’s been described as an “exemplary” law protecting the rights of its historically marginalised Indigenous Peoples, including the Baka. This law was the first of its kind in Africa.

In practice however, the law seems to have made little difference to their lives: in October 2019, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples said that in Congo, Indigenous Peoples were still subject to “deep, systemic and extremely entrenched discrimination”. Meanwhile, the local civil society group, Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l'Homme (OCDH), has documented that Indigenous Peoples’ customary tenure rights are not being recognised in the country’s new land laws.

Limited benefits from logging

It is important therefore that CIB’s operations consider the needs of Baka and other Indigenous People.  Happily, some of the Baka I spoke to in Pokola had a positive story to tell.  

“The CIB is building houses for us. Our children’s education is free. Our health care is also taken care of,” says Gaston Dambo, 54, the head of an Indigenous family, who works for the community radio station Biso na Biso, which is managed by CIB.

But travel to just a few kilometres outside Pokola, and a less rosy picture emerges.

Since 2015 farming communities in Pokolahave been requesting that CIB and the local authorities expand the Community Development Series(CDS), which are areas of forest inside logging concessions set aside for them to use for farming and gathering non-timber forest products.

So far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. “We want ten more kilometres because the population has grown, and the space has shrunk. But nobody listens to our complaint,” says Ange Zéphirin Elapa, 50, whose Indigenous forebears owned this land.

Elapa also has wider concerns: “Our land was granted to CIB by the state. But nothing comes back to us. We have filed a complaint against this company which must recognise that this land belongs to a family.” He says a complaint is pending against CIB at the Ouesso court. “The authorities turn a blind eye so that our land rights are not recognised,” he added.

But Paul Yves Nganga, manager of CIB’s socio-economic and wildlife programme explains that processes are complicated: “The populations do not have access to information on the social obligations [of the forestry companies]. Often they confuse the social obligations (cahier des charges) and the company’s management plan (plan d’aménagement).”[1]

In the Sangha, all the social obligations between the CIB and the communities were undertaken between 2002 and 2010, enabling the rehabilitation or construction, among other things, of schools, dispensaries or even water and forest equipment in Ouesso, Pokola, Pikounda, Kabo and Ngbala.

“These obligations were agreed by the forest authorities. But there were sometimes inadmissible things benefiting individuals with power, which we were asked to finance”, says Roger Mobandzo of CIB’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme. “And the NGOs which should strengthen the capacity of communities, helping them to understand the process of developing social clauses in logging contracts, are absent from the field.”

Contentious use of funds

A Local Development Fund (FDL) financed by a 200 Central African CFA franc (0.3 Euros) levy on each cubic meter of wood CIB harvests annually, has been initiated in all logging concessions that have a forest management plan – yet all too often, some locals allege, officials embezzle the money.  

The FDL is intended to finance community-led micro-projects in the fisheries, agriculture and livestock sectors, but its management is contentious.

“There are often conflicts in the execution of micro-projects. Sometimes the village chiefs monopolise them and do not pay other members of the communities”, says 39-year-old Ghislain Indépendant.

Some in Pokola talk about other problems such as the Bana Mbokwé project for the development of small-scale fishing, which was launched in 2013. It failed because barely 700,000 CFA francs (1,000 Euros) have been released out of the 1.7 million CFA francs (2,500 Euros) planned.

“The few fishing nets bought have become monuments in a warehouse,” says Ange Zephirin Elapa, going on to explain that “officials often purchase equipment for FDL projects without involving or reporting to the communities.”

Other testimony reveals unintended consequences such as the fact that since the FDL was established, CIB’s wood waste, which locals used to use to construct houses or for charcoal, have been burnt to generate electricity.

“It’s a difficult situation. I can't find a plank to enlarge my house anymore. My children have grown up. Without more rooms there is almost no more privacy,” complains Sylvie Momboti, 39.

Diverging interests

There are also concerns in Djaka, a village of 350 inhabitants, near Ouesso, the capital of the Sangha region, and around 40 kms from Pokola. Thanks to a CDS, local people there have access to 900 hectares – and have obtained equipment and funding for pastoral and fishing micro-projects. But the benefits of these projects are not being equitably shared.

“All these projects go to the Bantu communities and we are neglected,” says Michel Moliki, an Indigenous representative. “The amount paid by the CIB is known, but it is not what goes back to the communities,” insists Moliki.

Another problem is faced by the 30 inhabitants of Douma, a village 113kms from Ouesso. People there grapple with the twin pressures from the conservation aims of the nearbyOdzala-Kokoua National Park, and logging by the Congo Industrial Forest Company. According to people in Douma and their neighbours in Miélekouka (226 inhabitants), every day elephants from Odzala devastate their fields of cassava and bananas, the two main crops in the area.

“It’s an ongoing conflict. We do not know who can come to solve this problem because the authorities only vote on the laws, but on the ground they manage almost nothing,” said Avive Abelam Ekoum, 35. “It’s becoming even more dangerous for us: the animal population has increased due to conservation.”

In 2019, park officials compensated three farmers 50,000 CFA francs (76 Euros) each after their fields were devastated. These farmers each paid 2,500 CFA francs (3.8 Euros) in advance to the park. “I do not recognise this compensation for the simple reason that nothing has been calculated. My devastated field, in normal times, brought me up to 200,000 CFA francs (300 Euros). I was just bullied,” says Antoinette Mouagna, 59.

“Park animals roam everywhere. In the Lango area (around 20 km from Douma), the peasants hardly have the time to go to work on their plantations because of the elephants,” says one of the eco-guards at the checkpoint located at the entrance of the park. In the park area the residents of Douma and Miélekouka have ten kilometres where they can carry out their subsistence activities. But it seems both eco-guards and community members have concerns.

Nestor Nazouola, general secretary of the Miélekouka area explains that “Sometimes, eco-guards rob us of game in the authorised space. They seize our rifles despite our authorisation to carry weapons.”

But the eco-guard complains that “Every hunter considers us an enemy even when he breaks the law.”

A resolution through little-known laws?

It is clear then, that outside Pokola, the conservation and logging projects which represent a ‘forest Eldorado’ for some, are negatively impacting the lives of many. The wealth they are generating is not trickling down. What’s more, when it comes to forest protection, the trees are standing - but peoples’ livelihoods, traditions, habitats and culture are being trashed.

The conservation model implemented in Sangha may work for the government and international NGOs, but not for local communities. The model needs to be revised to consider that the people living in these areas should not be penalised with ringfenced forests and animals that destroy their crops.

What’s more, the financial and other benefits which logging companies are obliged to share with local communities as part of their concession agreements, are not working for reasons which include:  low community capacity,  weak governance, mismanagement of funds, and the different needs and aspirations of the Bantu and Indigenous communities.

There is however, a law aimed at tackling some of these issues.

In 2010, the European Union and the Republic of the Congo signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) to curb the illegal timber market. This agreement, which entered into force in 2013, promotes accountability among both companies and government authorities. It was this VPA which triggered the adoption of the landmark legislation on Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The agreement includes wording that communities should be involved in managing forest resources, the benefits of which must be shared equitably and transparently.

Yet, according to Grégoire Kouffa, the mayor of Ouesso “a process like the VPA and its benefits is not really known to the public. This is an insider affair.”

“The community radio we have here doesn't talk about it. And, the newspapers that appear in the capital [Brazzaville located 1000 km from Ouesso] hardly arrive here at all,” he says.

The reality is that on the ground there is little knowledge and ownership of the VPA by local populations who are struggling to have their rights recognised in the face of logging and conservation projects.

In Ouesso, Djaka and Douma, the local populations are just asking to be able to make their voices heard and not to suffer any more. Meanwhile the Government has made it clear they wish to make Sangha a prosperous economic area. With the help of the VPA, both of these wishes can be achieved but only if governance is improved, and local communities are involved and able to benefit.

Find related stories in our Our Forests Our Lives report. 

(c) Photos by Laudes Martial Mbon

  • Photo 1: In Douma
  • Photo 2: in Miélekouka
  • Photo 3: Indigenous families' dwellings in Djaka
  • Photo 4 and 5: Indigenous women from the Djaka community

[1]Forest management plans are legal agreements between forest concession holders and the government. They are intended to ensure the sustainable management of forest resources, and support the socioeconomic development of local communities, while allowing logging of timber.

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