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Will timber parks save 'Africa's lungs'?

December 01, 2023
tags:#congo basin, #deforestation, #climate action, #Democratic Republic of Congo, #Africa
located:Democratic Republic of the Congo
by:Bob Koigi
When the forests of the DRC are depleted, experts argue, the repercussions will affect everyone.

Over 30 million people rely on the Congo Basin’s forests for their livelihoods, engaging in activities like small-scale farming and artisanal logging. The belt, known as ‘the lungs of Africa,’ is the world's largest carbon sink, surpassing the Amazon by absorbing over 50 billion tons of carbon - equivalent to the emissions of over 10 billion cars.

This vast expanse is home to more than 10,000 species of plants and a diverse array of wildlife, including chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, forest elephants and bonobos, among others. 

The Eastern forests in the Congo Basin stand as the last remaining rainforests in the world, following the Amazon. Yet this globally significant biodiversity hotspot faces growing threats from factors like human encroachment, population growth, environmental degradation, deforestation and the impacts of climate change.

deforestation: a growing threat

Deforestation in the DRC has been on an unprecedented rise, doubling in the last decade. The country has been losing over 1 million hectares of forest cover annually between 2010 and 2020 - the highest rate after China and Brazil. 

"That wanton destruction of forests has over the years become serious, with devastating ramifications on biodiversity and ecosystems as trees remain crucial in protecting the environment, mitigating climate change and generating water supplies," Anita Nkirote, a Nairobi-based development communication expert, told FairPlanet.

illegal timber and charcoal trade have been key drivers of deforestation, as trees are harvested to produce charcoal for sale, in violation of the country's laws. Every year, roughly 1.3 million sacks of charcoal are harvested from Eastern DRC and sold illegally. Militia groups and corrupt government officials facilitate the transportation and protection of the charcoal along what has been labeled 'the charcoal highway' after traders pay illegal taxes to these groups.

The Virunga National Park in the area is home to major old-growth forests. With 90 per cent of the households surrounding the park lacking access to electricity and relying on charcoal for fuel, over 80 per cent of this charcoal is illegally produced from the forest to meet local and regional market demands.

Meanwhile, the intermittent conflict in the country pitting armed groups and rebels against the government over natural resources and minerals has also fanned the illegal trade, which is characterised by corruption, tax evasion and the forging of logging permits. 

The illicit timber trade 

The eastern region of the country serves as a significant hub for illicit trade, benefiting from its strategic connections to neighbouring countries and lax regulations and checks at the border. Once trees are harvested in the forested areas of the country, they find their way to Europe and Asia, primarily China and Vietnam

In 2022, DRC became a member state of the East African Community economic bloc. The easing of the border restrictions has also increased demand for tropical timber in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, which are also members of the bloc. 

The timber park solution

Recognising the scale of the illegal trade, the DRC government is collaborating with environmentalists and non-governmental organisations to address and reverse the situation.

One solution is the establishment of timber parks, which were introduced in 2017 at border crossings, starting with the eastern borders, and have been tasked with monitoring timber exports and collection of revenue. 

The park teams, which consist of forest rangers, have emerged as pivotal in stemming the flow of illegal timber thanks to modern verification techniques of logging permits and exported timber. The park personnel are also able to verify the origin of the timber and its legality, as well as whether sustainabile practices were employed during its harvesting. 

A case stud conducted between 2020 and 2022 on the timber trade and export, titled 'Timber Trade in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Effectiveness of Timber Parks in Tackling Tax Frauds,' exposed the depth of issues at the porous borders and advocated for the effectiveness of the initial timber park established on the eastern border.

According to the study, approximately 93 per cent of the timber sampled for export on the border had no trace of an authorised logging permit. All the while, only a fraction of the total volume was being declared correctly. Misdeclaration of tree species, which occurred frequently, meant that timber was either taxed inaccurately or not at all, which ultimately denied government and communities revenue. 

For instance, in one of the timber exports sampled by the researchers, 20 of 100 cubic meters of the trees were declared as Mammea Africana by exporters. But further scrutiny by park staff and laboratory analyses showed that it in fact belonged to the genus Afzelia, which is commercially known as doussié, a species with the highest rate of taxation across all species and was recently listed as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. 

"Timber parks can be an effective tool for the DRC to stem the flow of financial losses from illegal timber exports," the authors of the study Paolo Omar Cerutti and Silvia Ferrari noted in an opinion piece.  "They send a clear signal to illegal traders that the old way of bribing your way out of the country is no more, or much more difficult to use. Up-scaling to all major border crossings, however, is needed to deny truckers the choice of crossing at borders without timber parks." 

An international challenge

And as the country steps up its resolve to tame illegal trade at borders, another project is seeking to enhance transparency of timber exports to Uganda by training officers at the border on practices to improve data gathering and wood identification based on trees’ species.

Dubbed the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, the initiative was launched in 2016 by the Association de Coopération et Solidarité en RDC (ACS-RDC), a DRC-based NGO.

It has also attracted the attention and support of development agencies such as FAO, the European Union, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Belgium’s Africa Museum and the Congolese Institute for Agronomic Research (INERA).

With the DRC expanding connections to the East African region and global community through improved rail and road networks, Nkirote from Nairobi argued that the nation will face increasing pressure to clear more land for infrastructure. At the same time, demand for its timber from neighbouring countries is expected to rise.

She further noted that timber parks alone are insufficient to deter criminals deeply embedded in the illegal timber trade. She advocates for stronger legislation that imposes severe penalties on perpetrators, calls for commitment from government officials - some of whom have been accused of involvement in the illicit trade - and encourages community involvement to expose wrongdoers and safeguard the world heritage.

"Even as we call for support of timber parks, there needs to be a comprehensive approach on how to protect the iconic Congo forests," she said. "From strong legislation to curtailing perpetrators, political will and making local, indigenous communities the custodians of these forests." 

Paolo and Silvia concur in their op-ed. They suggest that neighbouring countries like Uganda or even Kenya, located along the trade routes, must enhance the verification and recording processes for incoming timber.

They further emphasise that exporting and importing nations share collective and proportionate responsibilities for environmental stewardship. When the forests of the DRC are depleted, they say, the repercussions will affect everyone.

Image by Rutendo Petros.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Embed from Getty Images
Over 30 million people rely on the Congo Basin’s forests for their livelihoods through activities such as small-scale farming and artisanal logging.
Embed from Getty Images
Yet one of the world’s richest biodiversity areas is increasingly under threat due to a cocktail of factors such as human encroachment, rising population, environmental degradation, deforestation and climate change impacts.
Embed from Getty Images
One concept is proving crucial in tackling this. The timber parks that were introduced in 2017 at border crossings, starting with the eastern borders, have been tasked with monitoring timber exports and collection of revenue.