The Fight to Save Congo's Forests
Among the major timber firms in the DRC is an American company called Safbois, owned by a secretive family firm called the Blattner Group. The Blattners' other Congo-based businesses include construction, road building, telecommunications, aviation, trucking, port services and agriculture. The managing director, Daniel Blattner, splits his time between a Philadelphia suburb and the DRC, where his family has run businesses since just after independence.
The Blattners have operated in Congo for forty-six years. They purchased some of their best assets after the despotic Mobutu seized them from their Belgian owners. Environmentalists charge that Safbois is logging in violation of local agreements and national laws and with no regard for the well-being of people or the environment.
To investigate all this, I set out to visit Safbois's main timber concession, a 667,000-acre expanse of public land the firm gets to log. It lies near the town of Isangi, where the Lomami River meets the Congo. It is an area of tremendous biodiversity, home to 32,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers.
The first leg of the trip is a flight to Kisangani. I am carrying five forms of official documentation, yet the authorities insist I need more. The underpaid civil servants here toy officiously with the components of a defunct colonial police state, not for the sake of law and order but to demand survival-level bribes. When the authorization is finally ready, it is handwritten on old brown paper, but stamped and signed. On the verso is a typed document concerning veterinary medicine. It reads: "Congo Belge, District de Stanleyville, Secrétariat... 7 février 1957."
To reach the Safbois concession, a local guide and I ride motorcycles west from Kisangani along the Congo on trails that only twenty years earlier had been blacktop roads. The bridges are mostly washed away or blown up, so we cross each tributary by loading our motorcycles into dugout canoes. A continual string of villages unfolds, each composed of thatched-roof mud huts. At times the path is filled with a sweet floral fragrance and clouded with white and purple butterflies. Forests give way to patches of grassland, then clumps of bamboo and then more forest.
After a day of riding, a modern multistory brick building emerges from the wall of jungle greenery: we have arrived at the Institut Facultaire des Sciences Agronomiques de Yangambi. Built in the late 1960s with Belgian aid, the old forestry university at Yangambi is now closed; only a skeleton crew maintains the buildings. But the university still houses a huge biological archive: stuffed birds, pressed leaves, wood samples, 150,000 species in all. There's a dusty old lab, abandoned offices and, according to the watchman, "a cave where King Leopold liked to hide." But the Belgian King Leopold, who owned Congo as a personal fiefdom between 1885 and 1909, never actually set foot in Congo. The university starts to feel like a Surrealist's jungle amusement park, or a monument designed to mock Congo's pathetic lack of a real forest policy. It is the embodiment of everything that should be, but is not.
The next day we cross the Congo and ride deep into the Safbois concession to Baluolambila village. Along a flat stretch of road we stop to talk with a village chief. "This company came here just to cut trees, and from the beginning it has been nothing but lies, lies, lies," says the chief, Frédéric Makofi, as several men gathered around nod their approval. Chief Makofi wants clinics and schools and building materials and transportation. He says much of this was promised but not delivered.
The new Congolese forest code requires that logging companies draw up social responsibility contracts with the communities in their concessions--essentially the law asks the firms to set up company towns. Greenpeace, among others, has attacked this corporate-centered model because it undermines the state's responsibility to create a functioning system of social services. But in the Isangi concession, people say the Blattners won't even create a company town. They claim Safbois used intimidation to force through an agreement and then failed to deliver the promised schools and clinics.
"According to Section 89 of the forestry code, the company must build schools and clinics while they cut the trees. But they are only cutting," says Chief Makofi. He says the company gave the people some gifts and started construction on one school. "At first the people were happy that the company had arrived because they thought logging would equal development." But, Makofi says, it hasn't.
"We don't have any norms or restrictions to impose on the company. This is our first time dealing with anything like this. There are places that are sacred and the company has gone in to those places and cut trees there. Those trees they are cutting were helping us," explains Chief Makofi. "We want development in exchange." Like many people, Makofi thinks that a well-managed forestry policy could ensure that trees are replanted and allowed to grow while still providing enough timber and income to help raise the standard of living here--balancing environmental protection and development.
His complaints are echoed throughout the Safbois concession. In another village, a mile or two away, we meet a farmer named François Likungo. "There is nothing for our benefit," says Likungo. "And the forest has changed--all the animals have gone. We used to catch antelope and porcupine and possums in snares. But now the animals flee the noise of the machines. Before Safbois came we ate meat five times a month. But now it is just vegetables and cassava."
Two women standing nearby explain that childbirth is risky because the closest clinic has no medicine. School and medicine cost money, but this is an almost cashless society. Among the mob of kids clustered around are several with ringworm sores on their scalps and faces.