Congo Basin Countries Struggle To Curb ‘Conflict Timber’

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Written by D.A. Barber

Africa’s timber-producing countries and the timber industry have agreed to combat the illegal trade in the Congo Basin. A watchdog group questions the motives.

On Oct. 23, the governments of Africa’s six main timber-producing countries announced an agreement with the timber industry and civil organizations to jointly combat the illegal timber trade in the Congo Basin.

The U.N.-facilitated agreement was hammered out during an international forum held in Congo’s capital of Brazzaville Oct. 21-22, creating the Brazzaville Declaration, which establishes a commitment towards the sustainable and legal development of the region’s timber industry.

“The Brazzaville Declaration, while not a legally binding instrument, will serve as policy guideline to improve – among others – forest management and forest governance. This in turn will significantly contribute to reduce the harvesting and trade of illegal timber, which sometimes ends up being ‘conflict timber,’” Olman Serrano, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) senior forestry officer told AFKinsider.

The six African countries – the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon – agreed to implement measures that “improve timber tracking, transparency and forest governance.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, “the new agreement is considered a crucial step towards productive and sustainable forest management in the Congo Basin and is the outcome of a long debate among key stakeholders in the forest industry, as well as regional and international partners, including the Association Technique International des Bois Tropicaux (ATIBT), the European Forest Institute (EFI), the European Union (EU), and the FAO.”

But London-based watchdog group Global Witness isn’t so sure.

“The Brazzaville Declaration is an initiative championed by the logging industry, which is itself part of the problem of unsustainable exploitation of the Congo Basin’s rainforest,” Alexandra Pardal, forest campaigner at Global Witness, told AFKinsider. “It is regrettable that the declaration does not commit to any specific measures on combating illegal logging in the industrial logging sector or exploring alternative forms of sustainable forest management involving forest-dependent peoples themselves.”

Why The Congo Basin?

The 300-million-hectare Congo Basin is not only home to the world’s second largest tropical rainforest after Amazonia, recent research shows that Congo Basin tree species are larger in stature on average than their Amazon counterparts, making the African rainforest may be a larger carbon storehouse and a key resource for stabilizing global climate change.

But the Congo Basin is also a major supplier of illegal timber, part of a global trade that costs governments some $10 billion per year in lost tax revenues worldwide, according to FAO.

“The rate of deforestation in the Congo Basin over the last 10 years was considerably lower than that of the Amazon or the Asian region. Nevertheless, yearly losses are reported in the range of 1.7 million hectares per year between 2000 and 2010. Illegal logging is one of the causes of deforestation,” FAO’s Serrano tells AFKinsider.

Part of the problem is the systematic abuse of poorly regulated logging permits companies, forest officials, and politicians that is undermining efforts to fight deforestation as well as curbing illegal timber out of the EU, says an April 2013 report by Global Witness.

The report, Logging in the Shadows, identifies a largely hidden pattern of abuse across the DRC and Cameroon, among other African nations in which logging permits designed to promote small businesses and meet local needs are instead being allocated by the hundreds to large logging companies.

These “shadow permits” allow large-scale and lucrative logging operations to bypass oversight by the authorities. According to the report, “dozens of Artisanal Logging Permits were allocated in the DRC between 2010 and 2012, mostly to foreign industrial companies, violating DRC’s forest laws in at least 10 different ways.” Because of this, “logging companies are systematically colluding with corrupt officials to get around laws designed to stop them decimating forests and abusing those that live in them.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo is “the second most forested country on earth and 40 million Congolese depend on the forest for income, food, building materials or medicine,” according to the watchdog group, Global Witness.

But the vast majority of logging revenues in the DRC were lost to tax avoidance and other illegal financial arrangements in 2012, according to an investigation released Oct. 28 by Global Witness. That report, The Cut-Price Sale of DRC’s Forests, reveals how tax breaks and other illegal incentives offered by the Ministry of Forests’ Nature Conservation and Tourism (MECNT) allow the logging industry “to skirt Congo’s laws and deprive the Congolese people of the few economic benefits they are due in return for the felling of their forests.” The findings show that in 2012, the DRC Treasury received only 10 percent of what is required under Congolese law – that companies must pay 50 cents per hectare in “surface tax.”

“Illegal logging is still a major problem in the Congo Basin, as documented by Independent Forest Monitor reports and the reports of non-governmental organizations,” said Pardal. “Our recent revelations of massive illegal tax avoidance in DRC show that some logging companies are still neither committed to the rule of law nor to sustainable development.”

Based on the 14,941,935 hectare surface area of all of the DRC’s logging concessions and the prescribed rate of 50 cents per hectare, the report concludes the DRC treasury should have received  $7,470,967.50 per year.

“Conflict Timber”

The phrase “conflict timber” was coined in 2001 by a U.N. panel investigating the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. Global Witness later defined it as timber “traded in a way that drives violent armed conflict and threatens national or regional security.”

Global Witness has since documented how such illegal timber sales have played key roles in funding activities in Cambodia and Liberia. More recently, Global Witness released a report on Oct. 10 that found Danish timber giant Dalhoff Larsen and Horneman purchased illegal timber worth $304,870 from Liberia in 2012. One of the world’s leading international timber and wood product wholesalers, DLH had previously bought conflict timber which financed the government of recently convicted war criminal Charles Taylor during Liberia’s civil war.

U.N. analysts categorize the Congo’s recent conflict as a resource war motivated by control over the region’s rich natural deposits of minerals and timber, noting that a number of groups had made huge profits from timber sales, some of which were used to finance their roles in the country’s brutal 1998-2003 war.

“For this reason, it is very important to improve forest governance in the region and continue progress in the implementation of the voluntary partnership agreements signed between the countries and the European Union,” said FAO’s Serrano.

In the wake of these timber-fueled “resource wars,” the European Union adopted a Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in 2003 to stem the illegal timber trade, including using technologies to trace the origin of timber, as well as legally binding agreements – known as Voluntary Partnership Agreements – between the E.U. and timber-producing countries that distinguish between legally and illegally harvested timber to meet the growing consumer demand for environmentally and socially benign timber products.

“We are neutral facilitators of processes. Therefore, we do not take positions on developments such as the declaration or express comments,” Sandra McGuire, senior communication expert for the EU FLEGT told AFKinsider.

Nevertheless, McGuire says “we do believe that the Congo VPA will help the Congo stop trade in illegal timber and improve sustainable forest management.”

While laws were passed by the U.S. in 2010 that require oil, gas, and mining companies to declare what they pay governments, the U.S. law did not include the logging sector. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act), passed in July 2010, does attempt to stop rebel groups in the DRC from illegally using profits from the minerals trade to fund their activities, but that law does not including logging.

Another international effort to curb conflict timber sales is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This coalition was formed out of a London conference in June 2003 of governments, timber companies and civil groups that monitor transparency through the verification of company payments and government revenues from extracting natural resources.

The G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on June 17 reiterated strong support to the EITI, as did the final declaration from the September 2013 G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, stating that, “We welcome initiatives aimed at increasing extractive transparency, including voluntary participation in the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and take note of the progress. We ask the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group to further follow this issue.”

EITI told AFKinsider that it welcomes the new Brazzaville Declaration effort “to improve the governance of natural resources in the Congo Basin region.”

“It is expected that EITI will play a role in the trade of timber in the Congo-basin region, in the future, but this will require significant effort from all stakeholders involved in these particular countries,” said Kråkenes of EITI. “Countries like the DRC have committed to expending EITI reporting to the forestry sector. Cameroon is exploring this possibility as part of its EITI implementation.”

While the Congo Basin countries of Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo had their EITI suspended in April 2013, Cameroon was just designated as “EITI Compliant” on October 17, 2013, joining the Republic of the Congo and Côte d’Ivoire.

In fact, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the government of Japan recently signed an $1.8 million agreement in May 2013 for funding a large project to support the rehabilitation of forest lands degraded during civil warfare that took place in Côte d’Ivoire from 2002-2005 and 2010-2011.

The western part of Côte d’Ivoire was the scene of violent clashes, which funneled refugees and internally displaced people to refugee camps in forest reserves, where they engaged in uncontrolled wood harvesting. ITTO Executive Director Emmanuel Ze Meka stated at the signing ceremony that the project “will ensure not only the rehabilitation of the damaged forests, but also the recovery of the daily livelihood of the displaced people and local communities damaged from the warfare.”

Some other Congo Basin “conflicts” have been less pronounced, but nevertheless impact international consumer perception of timber sales originating from the region.

On May 21, 2013, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) announced dissociated itself from the Danzer Group of forest product companies – one of the top 10 producers of hardwood products in North America – in light of accusations of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The FSC’s disassociation resulted from a formal complaint that the Swiss-German timber company’s Congolese subsidiary, SIFORCO, failed to prevent violence committed by the Congolese military against civilians in the village of Bongulu, of Northern DRC on May 2, 2011. They were protesting the company’s failure to fulfill its contractual obligations, such as building a school.

But with the signing of the new Brazzaville Declaration on Oct. 23 to improve timber tracking, transparency and forest governance,  the Congo Basin’s forestry business partners hope to put much of the “conflict timber” history behind them.

“It is possible that the Brazzaville declaration can contribute to curbing ‘conflict timber,’ but as in the case of ‘conflict minerals,’ this will require significant coordination at the international level,” EITI’s Kråkenes said. “We need also to recognize that these declarations of good intentions often lack the necessary mechanism for effective implementation – in contrast with the EITI.

“The declaration does not even mention conflict timber, so it is highly improbable that it could be a step towards curbing it,” said Global Witness’ Pardal.