25 November 2021

An Empty Pledge to Protect Rainforests

Muhammed Magassy

This month’s United Nations climate change conference had barely begun when a landmark deal to end and reverse deforestation was announced. More than 100 countries signed on to the “Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use,” a commitment “to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

The world’s largest forest carbon sink, the Congo Basin, was included in the pledge. And a coalition led by Western governments—including the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, and the European Union—announced a $1.5 billion fund to protect the Congo rainforest.

All of this should be great news. But while the political elite at the U.N. conference in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26, were making grand gestures to protect precious ecosystems, European, Chinese, and U.S. companies were still busy exploiting the Central African rainforest.

The COP26 deforestation pledge is yet another example of Western disingenuousness: The West is once again taking on the role of “white savior” while ignoring its own complicity in the environmental destruction taking place on African soil.

For centuries, the Congo Basin has suffered from timber exploitation. During the past few decades, illegal timber from the region has been steadily flowing into the EU, the United States, and, increasingly, China.

Illegal logging occurs when timber is harvested in violation of national laws or international agreements. Besides the environmental and economic damage, illegal timber trade fuels corruption and is often linked to organized crime.

In 2014, an investigation by Chatham House revealed a shocking figure: Up to 87 percent of logging done within the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011 was deemed illegal—making the country potentially the highest-risk source of wood products in the world. More recently, in 2018, Global Witness exposed how the single-largest owner of logging concessions in Congo, Norsudtimber—a Portuguese firm registered in Liechtenstein—was operating illegally at 90 percent of its sites.

While the EU has nominally banned illegal timber imports, high-risk timber continues to slip through. Indeed, illegal timber is a multibillion-dollar industry: It accounts for somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of the timber trade worldwide and is valued at over $100 billion. A large amount of this timber is then sold to consumers in Europe. A 2020 report by the French news agency TF1 discovered that the illegal timber harvested in Congo was likely to enter European markets even with barriers in place like the European Union Timber Regulation, which was implemented in 2013 to stop this from happening. In the United States, the Lacey Act is attempting to achieve the same goal. Amended in 2008 to encompass plant products, the Lacey Act was the first-ever ban on illegally harvested wood products.

While the EU has nominally banned illegal timber imports, high-risk timber continues to slip through.

Yet, Global Witness has repeatedly found that both the “EU and US are failing in their legal obligations,” and these laws to curb demand for illegal timber have to date been unsuccessful. According to the group’s estimates, in 2014 alone, over $21 million worth of high-risk timber entered Europe and the United States from Congo.

China has become the leading exporter of Congo’s timber, and, since 2009, timber exports from Central Africa to China have seen a 60 percent increase. In 2020, a new Chinese Forest Law was introduced to prohibit purchasing, manufacturing, or transporting timber known to come from illegal logging sources.

But it seems that the law has not drastically changed how Chinese companies operate in Central Africa. Earlier this year, campaigners took Congo’s former Environment Minister Claude Nyamugabo to court over accusations that he illegally transferred nine concessions, more than 2 million hectares overall, to two Chinese companies.

More stringent enforcement of European and U.S. bans on illegal timber is vital to stopping the flow. But even then, if illegal timber from the Congo Basin is able to reach China, it will be used to make consumer goods—furniture, construction materials, musical instruments, and more—which will then reenter the global market. For this reason, it’s imperative that unsustainable timber exports be shut down at their source.

And if leaked documents about the $1.5 billion in funding to help protect the Congo rainforest prove correct, that may not happen. It seems that all of the public-relations buzz surrounding the Glasgow declaration concealed a darker truth: The new funding deal could serve as cover to allow more industrial logging and possibly wipe out the forest within decades.

The Congo Basin covers around 500 million acres spanning six countries: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. At a time when the Amazon rainforest is turning from a carbon sink into a carbon source, the Congo rainforest, absorbing 4 percent of global carbon emissions each year, is becoming both the first and last line of defense against climate change.

Yet recent years have seen deforestation in the Congo rainforest more than double. Should the trend continue, there won’t be any primary rainforest left there by 2100.

Until recently, the region had been largely ignored by donors. Between 2008 and 2017, the Central African rainforest attracted only 11.5 percent of international financial support for ecological protection and sustainable forest management in the tropics. Norway allocated $1.7 billion to such efforts across the tropics, yet only 2 percent of those funds went to Central Africa; more than 80 percent went to the Amazon Basin.

However, this could be changing. In light of a recent revelation of enormous tropical peatland across Congo and the neighboring Republic of Congo, the risks are clear. Just a few years ago, the world’s largest tropical peatlands were discovered in swamp forests of the Congo rainforest, covering an area larger than England.

Researchers suggest that the peatland in the Congo Basin captures roughly three years’ worth of carbon emissions—for the entire world. Globally, only 3 percent of the land surface is covered by peatlands. Yet they store up to 30 percent of carbon found in soil. Recently, the Washington Post called peatlands either a “carbon bomb” or a climate change solution, highlighting how peat “is now considered a powerful tool to counter climbing emissions.”

If the peat forests in the Congo Basin don’t remain intact, it will lead to irreversible environmental destruction. In fact, logging on peatlands is considered illegal under Congolese law. However, the legislation fails to define what constitutes peatland, opening up an apparent loophole.

The new funds to save the Congo Basin will be distributed under the U.N.-backed Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). Norway is one of CAFI’s key donors, having famously pledged $150 million to Gabon in 2019 to battle deforestation.

With the COP26 Congo rainforest pledge, CAFI’s funding more than doubled. But these funds could backfire. Previously, the Norwegian government’s complicity in Congo deforestation came under fire when the Rainforest Foundation UK exposed how a project funded through CAFI would jeopardize 10,000 square kilometers (nearly 4,000 square miles) of peatland, potentially releasing up to 3.8 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Moreover, Central African governments have already granted roughly a quarter of the Congo Basin to logging companies, primarily ones from Europe and China that have repeatedly violated the local forest laws. Even if companies themselves have not engaged in illegal logging, Global Witness found that several European firms had sourced timber from a local Congolese company that harvested timber illegally outside of where it was approved to operate.

Just over 10 percent of that area is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a “widely recognized ethical wood label.” This certification is designed to ensure compliance with all applicable regulations, laws, and international agreements. Yet, according to the Washington Forest Protection Association, obtaining a “certification [such as the Forest Stewardship Council’s] is a voluntary process to demonstrate sustainable forestry.” Unsurprisingly, this has attracted criticism from nongovernmental organizations for offering little protection for forests without a real enforcement power.

The continuing push to log in the Congo Basin comes down to money, of course. A majority of the biodiverse region is situated in Congo, where the government is desperate for income. In 2018, according to the World Bank, “it was estimated that 73% of the Congolese population, equaling 60 million people, lived on less than $1.90 a day.”

Illegal logging not only results in lost revenue by the Congolese government but also causes corruption—and at worst conflict—which then hinders the overall development of a country. It has been estimated that most of Congo’s logging revenues disappear into thin air due to tax avoidance and other illegal financial arrangements. Shockingly, in 2012, Congo’s Treasury collected only 10 percent of the dues owed to it.

Without a moratorium, as much as 70 million hectares of virgin forest could be awarded to industrial logging companies.

In July, well before the COP26 conference, Congo declared its intention to lift a 20-year logging ban protecting the Congo rainforest—a decision met with howls of alarm from environmentalists. A statement from Greenpeace Africa, the Rainforest Foundation UK, and the Rainforest Foundation Norway argued that lifting the ban would “trigger a mass sell-off of the national territory, jeopardize local communities and exacerbate the climate and biodiversity crises.”

The situation called for a pressure campaign to keep the ban in place. But Western governments, at a time when they had obvious leverage—when they were getting ready to announce their $1.5 billion funding package to protect the Congo Basin—apparently failed to act.

According to a draft letter of intent regarding the new funding, reported by the Independent newspaper, Western governments were in such a rush to make a PR splash that they didn’t make the funds conditional on maintaining the logging ban. Without the moratorium, as much as 70 million hectares of virgin forest could be awarded to industrial logging companies.

Ahead of COP26, Sky News also reported seeing a letter written by over 40 NGOs, including Greenpeace Africa, Global Witness, and Congolese Indigenous groups, calling on donor countries to make any new funding conditional on a reinstatement of the ban.

Yet, it seems the pleas from civil society are going unheeded. The 12 objectives of a letter of intent between Congo and CAFI, published by the U.N. Development Program, do not include the reactivation of the logging moratorium.

Although this turn of events has left many environmentalists feeling hopeless, solutions are at hand. One useful model to follow for forest commodities like timber comes from Malaysia, where the national Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme has reduced deforestation for four consecutive years.

The MSPO certification includes robust rules on sustainability, wildlife and nature conservation, labor rights, women’s rights, and human rights. Enforced by the Malaysian government with sanctions for noncompliance, it also stops the planting of oil palm on peatland.

Political instability and a history of conflict may have contributed to Western donors’ lack of involvement in Central Africa, yet this has not stopped them from shamelessly benefiting from African forests for decades.

Currently, around 90 percent of palm oil from Malaysia is certified as sustainable under the MSPO, which demonstrates the potential of national certifications to bring change. According to Chatham House, one of the major obstacles to an effective Congolese government response to illegal logging is the lack of a clear national forest policy.

On paper, Congo regulates its forest sector through more than 40 laws and other regulations—most importantly the Forest Code of 2002. But in practice, these laws are not being enforced effectively, which creates loopholes for foreign companies to take advantage of the political instability in a country that ranks 170 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Political instability and a history of conflict may have contributed to Western donors’ lack of involvement in Central Africa, yet this has not stopped them from shamelessly benefiting from African forests for decades. Western nations must admit their complicity in overseas deforestation, support tools proven to curb environmental destruction, and prohibit illegal forest commodities from entering their markets.

Even with its flaws, Congo’s 2002 logging moratorium protected the rainforest from a major sell-off. With the moratorium gone, the fate of the Congo Basin now hangs in the balance.

As world leaders fly home from COP26 in Glasgow, they must realize that they’ll only succeed in saving the Congo rainforest if their decisions are guided by environmental concerns and hard-nosed policies that prevent illegal logging, and not simply by an ill-conceived desire to pretend they’re doing something.

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