Privat Tiburce Massanga | January 9, 2017
On a bush trail in the Mabombo district of southern Congo-Brazzaville, two forest guides lead the way to an informal timber cutting and sawmill operation. From afar, a man shouts, “Who is this man with you? We do not need a stranger here.” The site manager does not welcome journalists. But he eventually acquiesces, explaining: “We do not like visitors here because our papers are not in order and our boss firmly forbids visits. When the wooden planks start making their way to the city, he will be in the vehicle so that the goods are not seized.”
The site is busy. Men walk from the forest to a clearing with wood planks on their heads. The planks will be sent to markets in several different Congolese cities. Under a polyester tent supported by wooden stakes, workers warm up around a fire, waiting for transport fuel.
About four million hectares of forest cover southern Congo-Brazzaville. But the forests have been hit hard by illegal logging since the colonial era. While there are laws governing concessions, logging, and forest management, only a few formal operators complete the proper paperwork and respect the laws. Most operations are clandestine. There is constant conflict with public authorities and surrounding communities. The operations also expose the forest to uncontrolled exploitation, which degrades the local ecosystem.
There are illegal activities throughout the value chain—from timber collection to processing, transportation, and marketing. The same violations occur in all sites. For example, in the village of Kinkosso, village chiefs and a local member of parliament forced a licensed company called BTC to leave the forest because the company routinely left behind uncut logs, logs that eventually rot and can’t be sold. Local people see this as a loss of their forest resources.
There are many types of illegal activities. Neither commercial nor informal loggers respect the number of feet or the minimum diameter of trees that can be logged. To keep their illegal activities secret, some loggers work at night to prevent the noise of their chainsaws from attracting too much attention—or they carry timber in the wee hours to avoid possible forest inspectors. Some enter the forest without prior approval or logging documents.
Jean Pambou is an informal logger in Mabombo district. He thinks logging companies have too many taxes to pay and too many lengthy administrative procedures. He asks: “Do you know that we must obtain approval in Brazzaville? Why not decentralize the signing of these papers to prevent forest users from the temptation of fraud? [As a result of the situation], some pay taxes, but others do not.”
To get the proper paperwork, informal loggers would have to pay 260,000 CFA francs ($412 USD) per year, not including the monthly special permit fee and cutting tax, which is billed per foot.
Informal logging brings in an average of ten and a half million CFA francs ($16,700 US) in annual revenues. In the span of two weeks, each informal operation can cut 15-25 cubic metres of wood.
For flagrant violations and seizures of timber, some loggers often prefer to pay fines. More well-connected loggers can get officials to release seized goods.
An anonymous senior official with the Ministry of Forests, Economy, Sustainable Development, and Environment says that the state is primarily responsible for these illegal practices because it cannot fulfill its role as regulator and controller of forest activities. He says this is because of “corrupt officials and accomplices, the cumbersome administrative procedures, [and] the lack of monitoring, not to mention collusion on the part of senior officials within the ministry, army, or police when it comes to releasing seized cargoes of illegal timber.”
According to a 2014 report published by Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in the UK, “The problem of illegal logging has received only a poor response from the Congolese government. Very few of the policies and regulations necessary to ensure good forest governance are being implemented.”
But illegal logging is not only a loss to the national economy. Most importantly, it represents a loss of genetic sustainability for some tree species, ecological imbalance, and the disappearance of cultural practices.
Rural communities are the hardest hit. Prosper Ngo is the general secretary of Kinkosso village. He says: “Those loggers do not use our young people, and they get rich thanks to our forest resources. The forest administrators really do not call on us to help with control, and we cannot know if [the loggers are operating] legally or not. Our forests are being emptied of their big trees. We do not know what will happen to our forests, [nor do we know what impact] this will have on agriculture.”