How the DRC is fighting deforestation with an eye on the human cost

28 Juni 2022

A recent New York Times exposé has shown that, for many rural communities in the Congo, the logging industry is often the only way to survive, even as people are becoming increasingly aware of how vital these carbon-absorbing trees are in the fight against climate change.

But the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to one of the world’s largest rainforests, seeks to avoid the pitfalls of Brazil and its uncompromising assault on the Amazon by mitigating the worst effects of deforestation while still protecting the livelihoods of the local population. A series of new initiatives developed alongside international partners like Belgium, the US, the EU or the UN intend to help both forest and human to survive.

The lung of Africa

The Congo Basin is home to the second-largest rainforest after the Amazon, and, just like its peer across the Atlantic, it is under serious threat. While the African heartland might not be subjected to the deforestation frenzy taking place in Brazil, it is plagued by an illegal logging industry which, in the absence of roads, uses the river to transport exotic wood to Kinshasa.

While the ultimate beneficiaries of this illegal trade are giant international companies, the workers on the ground — and in the water — are often struggling and desperate members of the DRC’s remote rural communities. For less than $6 per day, thousands of locals are chopping down valuable trees and fashioning the timber into rickety rafts which they ride for days on end down the mighty Congo.

The Congo rainforest is the very lung of Africa, absorbing so much carbon that it essentially makes the entire continent carbon-neutral. The loss of trees in the Congo rainforest is bad news not only for the thousands of endemic species that form one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth, but also for the planet as a whole. A 2020 study shows that damage done by deforestation and intensive farming is already weakening the rainforest’s ability to sponge up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But whereas Brazil’s deforestation is growing at an alarming rate without Bolsonaro’s government showing any sign of wanting to turn the tide, the DRC government under president Félix Tshisekedi has encouragingly made mitigating deforestation a priority and secured a number of international partnerships to achieve this goal.

The forest and the people

During last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the DRC was one of Africa’s most active participants. Tshisekedi, who has been president since 2019, came forward with a series of important reforms to protect the Congo rainforest, while also making clear that “the protection of the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples is essential”.

Among the most important efforts made by the DRC in recent years has been the establishment in 2020 of the Direction de Reboisement et Horticulture, a state institution charged with restoring the country’s forests. It expects to plant one billion trees by 2023. In an attempt to bolster both economic and environmental progress, the government took action to ban the export of raw timber. This will not only reduce deforestation, but it will also compel remaining companies to open processing plants in the DRC, creating jobs and handing the country a bigger share of the trade.

President Tshisekedi also announced that a major audit of all companies with logging contracts is on its way. These efforts have not gone unnoticed, with the USA pledging $500 million and former colonial ruler Belgium offering $200 million to the DRC for use in forest protection. Money from the European Union is also funding several programs that deal with monitoring, rectifying and educating the population regarding environmental damage.

One of these initiatives recently received international attention, during an early June visit by the Belgian king to the DRC. The local community forestry in Miombo, which was developed alongside the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, is a crucial project that protects local communities by enabling them to manage the forests in a more sustainable way. Under the scheme twenty communities have been allocated more than 200,000 hectares of forests each, with management plans setting out plans for how the land can be used.

This initiative echoes what international experts have maintained for decades: that any attempts at halting deforestation must thoroughly involve local communities. Patrick Saidi Hemedi, the national coordinator of La Dynamique Des Groupes Des Peuples Autochtones, one of Africa’s largest indigenous organisations, maintains that “if you aspire to sustainable development, you need to secure indigenous land rights and their governance systems for effective rainforest protection”. It is a position that national governments are only now beginning to understand.

A future model

After allowing deforestation to grow to a worrying extent for decades, the Democratic Republic of Congo has changed gears, with President Tshisekedi who has implemented crucial measures to stop the destruction of the Congo basin. The DRC government has also put in place crucial safeguard measures to protect the way of life of rural and indigenous communities in the area.

In stark contrast to the ecological and humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Brazil’s forests, a once beleaguered African nation is moving ahead on balancing the scales between profit and conservation. If successful, the DRC model could serve as a blueprint for other areas across the world who seek to ensure prosperity for both man and nature.

Image credit: MONUSCO Photos

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