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$1bn plan to save critical Congo Basin forest could allow more logging, leaked documents reveal

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A $1bn plan backed by the UK and EU to protect the world’s second-largest rainforest could allow for more industrial logging that it is feared will wipe out the forest within decades, according to leaked documents seen by The Independent.

The Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) aims to protect the Congo Basin rainforest, which absorbs 4 per cent of the planet’s annual carbon emissions, through international support and investment.

But a draft letter of intent to the fund’s recipient, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), avoids taking a position on the country’s decision to lift a 20-year-old ban on new logging permits.

Environmentalists have warned that allowing more logging in the vast Congo Basin carbon sink is catastrophically incompatible with tackling the climate crisis.

While the moratorium remains under discussion, sources close to negotiations fear that there is a strong possibility the issue will not be challenged by CAFI – set up by the UK, France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and South Korea in 2015 – in the group’s haste to make the $1bn announcement at Cop26 in Glasgow.

Restoring and protecting nature will be high on the agenda at the climate summit and is integral to achieving the global goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

A chainsaw is taken to an old-growth tree in the Congo Basin rainforest, a vital carbon sink (© Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace)
A chainsaw is taken to an old-growth tree in the Congo Basin rainforest, a vital carbon sink (© Jan-Joseph Stok / Greenpeace)

“In the current negotiations towards a new multi-year partnership between CAFI and the DRC, forest sector policies are a very important element. As these negotiations unfold, the CAFI board works alongside the DRC government to agree time-bound and measurable political commitments that respond to the massive challenges of development, climate crisis and biodiversity loss,” CAFI’s executive board said.

Joe Eisen, executive director of the non-profit Rainforest Foundation UK, told The Independent that the deal risks being a “bodged agreement that is rushed through ... [by] those wanting to make an announcement at Cop26 rather than the Congolese forests and the millions who depend on them”.

Watch: Congo Basin is one of the ‘strongest defences’ in tackling climate change

He added: “While potentially opening up tens of millions of hectares to a logging industry that is mired in corruption and poor social and environmental practice, the draft foresees barely any increase in community management of forests, which is proven to store more carbon, harbour more biodiversity and benefit more people.”

The Congo rainforest is the world’s largest after the Brazilian Amazon. It is a peerless natural resource teeming with biodiversity, and home to 40 million people. 

It’s now the world’s largest forest carbon sink after scientists’ recent grim discovery that the Amazon had “flipped” to emitting more carbon than it absorbs due to rampant deforestation.

Aerial view of trees being removed in carbon-rich peatland forest near Mbandaka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (© Daniel Beltrai / Greenpeace)
Aerial view of trees being removed in carbon-rich peatland forest near Mbandaka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (© Daniel Beltrai / Greenpeace)

Numerous studies have underlined the importance of intact tropical forests to slowing climate change. Old-growth trees in particular are incredibly efficient at pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in a process called carbon sequestration.

But rampant deforestation is accelerating across Central Africa due to interwoven threats of industrial agriculture, urban expansion, oil and gas projects, and climate-driven droughts. 

Global Forest Watch reports that the rate of tree cutting has more than doubled in the past decade, and a recent study found the Congo Basin forest could be cleared by 2100.

“Forest protection and industrial logging are like oil and water. They just don’t go together,” Serge Ngwato, Greenpeace Africa forest campaigner, told The Independent.

“The moratorium must be extended and industrial logging scaled down, rather than expanded. Funds must benefit indigenous and local communities rather than the circular economy of multinational colonialist loggers.”

More than half of the Congo Basin’s forest cover, an estimated 110-150 million hectares, is located in the DRC. By some estimates, it’s the wealthiest country in the world in terms of natural resources, including raw minerals worth trillions of dollars. And yet its people remain among the world’s very poorest, the World Bank says. 

Watch: What will the world look like in 2030, 2040, 2050?

In 2002, the DRC introduced a national moratorium on new logging concessions. The moratorium has been continually violated and recently, environmental groups and NGOs sounded the alarm over nine forest concessions that were granted for in excess of 2 million hectares to two Chinese companies.

Despite its failings, environmental groups and NGOs say the moratorium plays an important role in protecting forests along with local communities and Indigenous peoples.

In July, the Congolese deputy prime minister and minister of environment, Ève Bazaiba, announced she would lift the ban on new logging concessions, saying it would help the DRC better govern its environment. 

It is expected to come into effect after being approved by DRC government ministers and Président Félix Tshisekedi, who had just weeks earlier vowed to protect the Congo Basin’s forests at a virtual climate summit hosted by US President Joe Biden.

More than 40 organisations, including Greenpeace Africa and Congolese indigenous groups, have urged CAFI to make new funding conditional on a binding commitment to extend the moratorium.

They say industrial logging could threaten an area of tropical forest the size of France and thousands of endangered species such as mountain gorillas, elephants and the Okapi, a species endemic to the region. It would also place the human rights of communities at risk, an open letter noted, while potentially increasing the risk of outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola and possibly Covid-19.

The Okapi, a mammal native to the region, will be further threatened by more industrial logging (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The Okapi, a mammal native to the region, will be further threatened by more industrial logging (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In response to the letter, Bazaiba doubled down on lifting the ban and said the government had “no lessons to learn about our resources from an NGO”.

Separately on 15 October, President Tshisekedi gained plaudits for saying he would suspend all “dubious” forest concession contracts until an audit is concluded.  

The DRC leader asked Bazaiba “to take stock of the exact locations and finances of all forest concessions in the DRC, and suspend all questionable contracts pending the outcome of the audit”, official documents stated.

A week later, Bazaiba said six contracts would be cancelled. Congolese NGOs had earlier provided a list of 22 contracts that they deemed illegal. 

A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “The UK and CAFI are committed to protecting the forests upon which local communities and people all over the world depend. We are in discussions with the government of DRC.”

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs also told The Independent: “We recognise the sovereign right of the DRC government to make decisions about the moratorium, but expect to see provisions being made to ensure the governance reforms are implemented well. CAFI is also committed to ensuring civil society are fully consulted throughout the negotiation of new partnership agreements with DRC.”

Logging concessions are the biggest land use in the DRC and surrounding countries while community lands account for just 1 to 2 per cent of the entire forest. 

Research by the non-profit, the World Resources Institute across heavily forested countries in South America, Africa and Asia found that when communities and Indigenous Peoples have legal rights to land, it has proven a powerful way to protect tropical forests.

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