The Republic of Congo, in Central Africa, is home to part of the world's second largest rainforest. The country is often considered a ‘laboratory’ because of the number of initiatives it implements to sustainably manage its forests. Yet local communities and indigenous peoples bear the brunt of the decisions of government elites, including the creation of concessions and protected areas on their customary lands, and are powerless to take ownership of their resources.
Arte recently released a video report on the dangers that threaten the ‘gorillas’ natural paradise in the Republic of Congo. The report covered the activities of the Forestry Industry of Ouesso (IFO) Ngombé, a subsidiary of the international Danzer group, in the forested Sangha region, as well as the work carried out by African Parks on the Odzala-Kokoua reserve.
This region of Central Africa, and the threats to its forests and wildlife, are relatively unknown to the European public. Arte’s report could have been a chance to highlight the complex challenges of preserving the environment in a country that aims to exploit its natural resources in order to advance economically and reduce poverty.
However, bias is evident in several respects, with the report portraying IFO’s activities in a glowing, unnuanced manner: depicting how the company harvests timber for commercial purposes while ensuring the preservation of the forest; and contributing to local development through job creation and support for community initiatives.
The reality on the ground is somewhat different, however. Many independent reports demonstrate the significant impact of large-scale logging, including illegal logging, on both the environment and the people.
In the Congo, foreign logging companies, including European ones, have been granted vast concessions that they are required to manage sustainably and in compliance with national legislation. However, the commitments made are not always respected. Operating on the ancestral lands of the communities without their consent, the logging companies have commandeered the right to delimit the areas in which these communities must live and carry out their activities.
However, these areas can quickly become overcrowded due to communities' use of forests, population growth and the influx of newcomers to the villages. In some cases, the areas reserved for agriculture are in marshy zones, as described in Forest Peoples Programme’s technical note on challenges related to community forestry.
Also, the species of wood harvested are often at the expense of the populations who depend on them for pharmacopoeia and their food needs. Local communities do not receive the benefits they are entitled to. Local development funds financed by logging companies do not reach the communities, who deplore their opaque management.
The report also suggests local populations are responsible for the degradation of their environment by encouraging the rise of poaching as a food source, without mentioning the fact that logging – along with mining or agriculture – has irreversible consequences for forests and communities. When primary forests are cut down, crops and community foraging locations are damaged; and game, which is necessary for communities’ food security, becomes scarce.
Timber exploitation by logging companies also sometimes causes water sources to be depleted and contaminated. Women suffer the negative consequences first, since it is up to them to provide their family with water and food. However, they almost never participate in decisions concerning the management of forests, nor in the distribution of the profits generated. For example, the Ngombé Carrefour communities in the IFO concession complained about IFO dumping its septic tank sludge onto land used by the villagers, polluting the communities’ immediate environment and seriously affecting the health of some community members.
As for protected areas, such as the Odzala-Kokoua Park, they are financed to the tune of millions by European and American donors, and are often the backdrop to human rights violations. Conservation NGOs responsible for these parks also evict communities and often prohibit them from using what the latter consider their forests, where they get almost everything they need.
By limiting human occupation and using the fallacious argument that communities are primarily responsible for destroying forests, conservation NGOs are putting large swathes of land under glass domes, and turning them into open-air zoos to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives appear ultimately to count for less than the wildlife.
These communities often live in remote areas without basic services, and are highly dependent on the ecosystems in which they live. For example, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has pointed out that no clear causal links exist between poverty and environmental degradation.
To cope with the complex challenges of alleviating poverty, protecting nature and economic growth that all Congo Basin countries face, it is essential to reject false solutions, and instead ensure that all stakeholders – including local communities – have a say in fostering appropriate policies and measures for more sustainable, equitable use of resources. Any form of conservation that accepts human rights violations as a cost or collateral damage to achieve conservation objectives and considers indigenous peoples and local communities as a threat to biodiversity and the environment should be rejected.
The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) that the Congo signed with the European Union, which aims to put an end to illegal logging and improve forest governance, is one possible solution: it provides a space for debate and agreement on inclusive solutions for forest management, including by communities themselves.
It is important to inform the public in both Europe and Africa, so that citizens can put pressure on their governments with all the information at hand, and to help them make more responsible consumption and tourism choices – which the Arte programme failed to do.
Local communities have managed to preserve their “green treasure” for decades. Only by giving them more rights over their forests and lands will we all succeed, together, in protecting them.