An Open Letter to the Conservation Community
Proposing to endorse the World Bank Plan to turn
the DRC into the biggest Timber Producer in Africa
I read with great interest the attached proposal for a joint declaration concerning the reactivation of the forestry sector in the DRC by the main international conservation NG0's active there. It would appear this joint endorsement has been requested by World Bank officials for an upcoming donor conference dealing with the DRC's forests and biodiversity.
If I should ever be asked to define the term 'wishful thinking' I will pull out this joint statement. It implies that large scale industrial logging in the DRC will be a totally different ball game from what has taken place in most of West Africa beginning a few decades ago and what is taking place in Central Africa today. Unfortunately the proposal does not touch on the reasons where this new found confidence might be coming from. However, it is certainly not borne out by the past track record when it comes to achieving sustainability or transparency in the forestry sector in any part of Africa.
Lets look at some of the relevant facts;
- In most of West Africa high value industrial logging has come to an end. The primary rain forests of the region have been largely depleted of the prime commercial species - and the same goes for the wildlife. In many areas fragmented forest patches no longer make for viable ecosystems.
- The same scenario is now being played out in most of Central Africa. In some of the countries concerned efforts have been made to mitigate the impact of logging and help the authorities concerned to improve governance as it relates to the forestry sector. The results so far have been minimal and disappointing.
By many accounts the situation in Cameroon is as out of control as it has ever been. The World Bank initiated reform process seems to have resulted in a few new challenges as far as finding ways to 'beat the system'. When it came to applying hard hitting donor conditionalities the bank and other donors regularly pulled back at crunch times.
The situation in Gabon is not very different; There are estimates that 60% of the timber is still logged or shipped illegally. Based on some of the latest reports logging and oil exploration has restarted in some of the newly created national parks.
Congo Brazzaville has set as its goal to quadruple timber output despite the fact that a World Bank/WWF report still lists discrepancies of several hundred percent when comparing officialexports with declared imports to some Mediteranian countries.
- The DRC Congo is being governed by a transitional government which
was cobbled together making -for the sake of peace - with all kinds of
compromises needing to be made which in the end did not necessarily provide
for an effective government structure.
The reality is that central government - with many regions having been under rebel control for years, not having had to take orders from Kinshasa- seems to find it very difficult to establish any kind of administrative control anywhere outside the capital. There is no fiscal/tax or judiciary system in place which could be relied on to enforce any of the conditions the proposed endorsement letter envisages. Any amount of capacity building will most likely take decades to yield the necessary cultural changes which has to be considered a prerequisite for any real socio economic development taking place.
The above analysis is already borne out by the most recent developments concerning the reactivation of the forestry sector under the guidance of World Bank experts:
- The new forestry code does not mention the word 'Faune' a single time and this despite 10 years of constantly hammering away at the linkage: Logging = bush meat which in turn equals empty forests.
- The logging community rejected outright the proposed surface tax, which seems to now have been reduced to a fraction of what was originally proposed.
- When this new forestry tax code was written - presumably in close cooperation with the World Bank experts - it was also used to set new taxes on Wildlife exploitation. The subsequent 'arrete interministeriel', signed by the minister of finance and environment, was a slap in the face for any party concerned with wildlife conservation (a hunting tax for all protected species including the mountain gorillas, the okapis, the bonobo etc. This document/law circulated with international animal dealers a long time before any of the International NGO's active in the DRC had any idea it existed).
- The World Bank supposedly agreed with the government on a moratorium in allocating concessions until the appropriate legislation was all in place. However an outgoing minister still managed to sign away some 7 million hectares of new concessions, to one beneficiary, which as of today are still valid.
- The total absence of any functioning natural resources (especially forestry) governance system in the DRC has been described in a detailed study carried out by the ARD consultancy for USAID.
- The recent exposure of an internal memo written by a Danzer executive (the most prominent logger in the DRC) detailed how accumulated fines of some U$ 1.5 million could probably be settled with a U$ 50 000 bribe). This same company abandoned a large work force at their K2 concession at the outbreak of the last war. A work force which today largely still lives in and of the forest.
- The ROC was supposedly suspended from the Kimberly process (of selling diamonds) on the ground that it could not possibly produce the amount it proposed to export, with allegations that high level officials in the DRC and ROC had a set up a private helicopter service regularly transporting the stones from locations in the DRC to the ROC.
All the above ties in very nicely with the recently published report "The same old Story" (by Global Wittness) as well as the various UN reports on the exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. Making it clear that the writing of new legislation will only be the first step in dealing with some of these issues. However, it is by far the smallest and easiest step and it can not possibly be the basis for endorsing resource extraction at this stage, without the capacity having been built and adequate institutions being in place. The likely outcome will be depleted resources with the financial basis having eroded to eventually create the necessary local capacity and institutions.
Even some of the World Bank's own research seems to indicate that assisting with natural resource extraction in poorly governed third world countries has not yielded socio economic development but more conflicts and social problems (in the period of time China managed to lift 400 million out of poverty Nigeria added 9 million people living below the absolute poverty line).
A certain sector of the conservation community, for some time now, has decided to sign on to the minimialistic approach to forestry conservation: 'The forests will come down anyway all we can hope to do is to mitigate its impact a little'. While in the past there were still some attempts to try to stop or at least curtail the logging of the remaining primary rain forests (There is a paper out called "Logging Off" outlining means and ways to achieve the above). The old argument was "maybe if we can slow things down we might find some 'miracle cure' down the road." However this line of thinking seems to now have gone out the window as well.
The proposed endorsement of the World Bank plan, to turn the DRC into the biggest timber producer in Central Africa, based on the kind of financial and control projections which have remained total utopia everywhere else, to me, is the final piece of evidence in this context.
Being familiar with the counter arguments which are likely to be advanced let me try here and now to debunk the notion of 'sustainable logging' being the answer in Central Africa and the evidence being in place and that it can work. That is when and where the CIB/WCS deal will be brought into the equation and that is when we will be told that it is evidence that logging can work in the context of Central Africa and that it is in the interest of the countries concerned.
Lets once again look at this 'best case' scenario (the CIB/WCS deal) and then ask ourselves if this kind of 'Better then then the rest' is really good enough (not forgetting that on the back of this project, logging per se is being endorsed including that of 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly'.
- We have a large German/Swiss logging company which has to be sensitive when it comes to PR issues.
- Its executives seem to have concluded that while minority issues and wildlife management might be important, that they do not have the expertise to deal with them (hiring the expertise, as they do with pilots for their private planes, does not seem to be an option). So if the conservation/donor community wanted to mitigate their impact they had to find the experts and largely (90%) pay for the clean up exercise.
- When it came to getting certified they decided that they could also not afford to pay for the inventory for their concession and that they needed donor support which is indeed what they got.
- 'It would be better not to pursue intervention on the certification
market with public funding.'
- 'The WWF should improve its internal communication system and
procedures in order to prevent conflicts between its offices
and staff. It shold also improve its project management, human
resource managment, multiculturality... Why not get itself
graded or certified.')
- It is a firm which during a 30 year presence in the area has attracted some 17000 new immigrants which by some is considered the ultimate 'time bomb', in terms of Bio diversity conservation in the area. The result also have been major unaddressed social problems largely affecting the Baka Pygmies which have been turned into a minority.
- The wildlife/buffer zone management project by now seems to cost close to US$ 1 million a year and it would appear that only some 500,000 hectares of the total concession is really covered by it. (If this was the basis for a calculation what wildlife management would cost in the 60 million hectares concessions the World Bank is proposing to open up in the Congo, the end result might well be that alone this component will absorb more then all the tax income the country would most likely realize).
- In this context I would also like to refer to the statement by a World Bank official involved in the forestry sector in the Congo stating that the Bank was aware that the outflow of foreign exchange in the logging sector was actually higher then inflow!
- The company in question does not make any financial statements available or discuss its profitability. When it states it can not afford to attempt certification on its own the conservation NGOs seem to have no problem but taking this at face value and go out and find donor money to assist.
- A recent internet listing of the assets of the head of state
indicates that he is a 50% shareholder in the company concerned
(somebody pointed out that after reading the list of companies
owned by him or family members, it might have been easier
to make a list of what they do NOT own).
In any country with a basic level of transparency, one would go to the registrar of companies and ask for the company's share capital, its directors and shareholders which might then allow linkages to possible proxy shareholders, potentially leading to questions when and how certain parties acquired their share holdings and at what price?
This appears to not be possible in the ROC and of course puts an additional and new twist on using western taxpayer money to help logging improve its image/profits.
- In the context of transparency, which the endorsement letter mentions, there is also the issue of audits/monitoring. In the above concession this seems possible, in some cases, where team members have been vetted and with such visits being prearranged. Unannounced visits by interested third parties are not possible and in one case led to a prosecution for 'Attacking the external security of the state'.
- The company and its partners are also the ones who held a press conference in New York celebrating 'the biggest conservation success story' in Central AFrica so far, when the loggers handed a small section of their concession to be added to a National Park. The announcement came with a wide range of assurances that no compensation or a trade off was involved. A few years later the corresponding ministry confirmed that the company was indeed given twice the area for future exploitation it had originally sacrificed.
- As to the question of how effectively the above resources
are being spent in the context of wildlife management
these are two statements by officials involved in
- "The idea is to have a plan. We do not say 'sustainable' we say improved." (Paul Elkin WCS).
- "We have not reduced illegal hunting directly. The project only started in 2001 and we still have a lot to learn through doing it." (Mr. Van der Walt, tt-Timber)
- Other logging companies have asked to benefit from a similar scheme (NGO's coming in and taking the bushmeat issue and that of minority forest people off their hands) and of course on the same terms as was granted to CIB. Clearly neither the manpower capacity nor the long term financing structure is in place to either expand or maintain even the present CIB/WCS deal in the long term.
(This despite an EU evaluation of a similar WWF project of leading loggers through the certification process which concluded:
So this then is the best practice/best case scenario the loggers/conservation NGO's have to advance for their endorsement of the the World Bank proposal to turn the DRC into the biggest logging concession in Africa. Clearly the question has to be asked 'Is the best good enough'? However that seems to be the question everybody is shying away from.
Would it not be prudent for the grouping of the NGO's in question to hold another meeting to look at alternatives to endorsing another potential disaster? Maybe this time with a copy of "Logging off" as the basis for the discussion. Maybe combined with the trust fund idea of essentially turning this last bit of undisturbed Congo Basin forest into some kind of a World Heritage Forest?
Not even considering any alternatives to the World Bank proposal could easily lead any cynical observer - like myself - to conclude that maybe this is not about protecting forests at all. This is about the potential of raising large amounts of money to deal with the mitigation and the clean up when things have gotten out of hand as they have everywhere else and as they are bound to with this scheme.
The track record of the conservation community in protecting the forests, the wildlife and the people of the forested areas of West and Central Africa can not be possible the basis for them/you to assume a decision making role in what should happen to the last tracts of undisturbed Congo River Basin, at least not without looking at other possibilities and options.
Thanks for having indulged me.
P.S. Since I have other things to do in life as well I have not bothered to reference this or come up with specific notes. However if anybody would like some more background information to any of the above points; I would be happy to dig through my files.
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