Deforestation in DR Congo: Battle for the rainforest

World mirror

Status: 10/24/2021 1:52 p.m.

The rainforest in the Congo Basin is the second largest in the world. Companies smell huge business, a lot of wood is illegally cleared. Some villagers want to take back control of their forest.

By Caroline Hoffmann, ARD Studio Nairobi

“This one is fine,” calls Papy Bonkale to his team. “One meter in diameter.” He has just measured a huge tree stump in the middle of the rainforest with a tape measure. “We can also find felled trees that are only 40 or 45 centimeters in diameter,” he explains. “But they should grow and take care of our children and grandchildren later. That hurts!”

Caroline Hoffmann
ARD-Studio Nairobi

They still take a photo and write down the tree’s GPS data. They want to show exactly how their work works.

Forest observers to protect the rainforest in the Congo

Caroline Hoffmann, ARD Nairobi, Weltspiegel, 10/22/2021

The three Congolese are so-called forest observers: armed with smartphones and satellite connections, they go on patrols in the forest around their villages several times a month. Here is the concession of a Chinese company, on an area about the size of the Saarland. Foreigners are not allowed to enter the area, but villagers under Congolese law are. And so they can control: Is the company that is cutting down here actually sticking to the rules?

Deforestation moratorium was not adhered to

There are many of these in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Trees that are too young must not be cleared, not even on slopes, near water sources or too close to villages. If they discover a violation, the forest watchers set off an alarm with their smartphone. This system is called ForestLink and is also used in Cameroon and Ghana, supported by the British organization Rainforest UK. “I’m happy when we raise an alarm,” says Bonkale. “In the end, it can lead to the violations stopping. And that’s what we want to achieve.”

Because the rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is under pressure. The green lung of Africa is very popular with the timber companies, a lot of money can be made here. There is actually a moratorium in place to protect the forest. Since 2002, no new areas may be cleared for clearing, only the old concessions may still be felled.

But the government did not adhere to that. Now the Congo is even considering opening up the forest completely. But the country is already failing to control the companies sufficiently – there is massive illegal logging. Experts estimate that the majority of timber exports from the Congo come from illegal sources.

Forest observers report violations of the Forest Act.

Image: ARD Studio Nairobi

For the people in the villages, a few hours by car from the next largest city, Mbandaka, the forest is their livelihood. There they find food, go hunting and farming. They want it to be used sustainably.

“It’s the lack of respect that makes me angry,” Labelle Bokele tells dem ARD-Studio Nairobi on a trip together with the “Spiegel”. She has been an observer for two years. “I am not against the management of the forest,” she adds. “But the Chinese company does not adhere to all requirements.” The villagers want control of their forest back.

Villagers can use the ForestLink app to report violations.

Image: ARD Studio Nairobi

First trial against illegal loggers

She is supported by the lawyer Joseph Bolongo from the local aid organization Gashe. The alarm data converge on him. Bolongo explains that there are not enough official inspectors to check all of the Congo’s forests. “But the communities here know the forest, they live in it. The alarms allow us, if something illegal is discovered, to pass this information on to the state authorities as quickly as possible.”

Bolongo was there when a call from the village of Loselinga actually had consequences in March 2019: angry residents reported that the Chinese suddenly felled trees. Together with the police and the public prosecutor, he immediately drove into the forest. The delegation arrested one of the Chinese, who then had to answer in court.

But despite the seemingly overwhelming burden of proof: At the end of the proceedings, he was acquitted with a reference to a fine. “The procedure didn’t work out the way it should,” says Bolongo. “Litigation does not always work well here. Civil society then raised an objection and the papers are under further scrutiny.” You suspect political influence.

Nevertheless, Joseph Bolongo rates the trial as a success, because it was the first time that a village in the Congo had brought a timber company to court with the help of civil society – a small sign of hope.

A trial in the city of Mbandaka.

Image: ARD Studio Nairobi

Villagers don’t want to put up with anything anymore

And not only that: the alarms collected help the villagers to oppose the corporations. “It is important that the villages know the rules,” says Bolongo. “If a company doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, they fight back.” Villagers then block a street, for example, or force the company to make concessions in talks.

Papy Bonkale also achieved a lot with an alarm. In his neighboring village there is a school that was never finished. There are large holes in the walls. Bonkale decided to place a hint here with the smartphone. The forest observers not only check within the concession, but also check whether the company is complying with its agreements with the villages. Because if you want to cut wood, you actually have to pay social benefits, such as giving money for such a school. “I wanted to inform about it with the alarm,” he says.

Lawyer Joseph Bolongo wants to show the villagers how to defend themselves.

Image: ARD Studio Nairobi

An investigation followed with a surprising result: it was not the company’s fault, it had paid, but the money was embezzled in the village. “Those responsible in the village were then arrested.”

The forest watchers find another success of their work. Since 2018, they have submitted 81 reports in the concession around their villages alone, including twelve alleged cases of illegal logging. They don’t want to put up with anything anymore: “We won’t let up,” says Labelle Bokele. “We will continue to send out alerts so that things run better for our children because the forest is our legacy.”

You can see these and other reports on Sunday, October 24th, 2021 at 7:20 p.m. in the program “Weltspiegel” on Das Erste.

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