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The Fight to Save Congo's Forests | The Nation

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The Fight to Save Congo's Forests

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The real power behind the throne in Congo is the World Bank. It is the single largest lender to this hugely indebted government--$4 billion so far. In 2002 the government of Joseph Kabila signed a moratorium on new timber contracts. But the edict was contradicted by other new laws. Now the Bank is funding a complicated, painfully slow process of timber contract review. The government of the DRC will determine the legality and environmental impact of all 156 industrial timber concessions; tax cheats and despoilers will (in theory) have their contracts revoked. But so far the process is badly behind schedule. Meanwhile, the logging goes on.

In this VideoNation report produced by Laura Hanna, Christian Parenti looks at the roots of Congo's environmental crisis.

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Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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In Kinshasa, I meet Kankonde Mukadi, the Bank's forest specialist. Why doesn't the Bank move forcefully to save Congo's forests? His response is high-minded flimflam: "This is a sovereign country. We can only make recommendations based on research."

Environmentalists laugh at this. Lionel Diss of Rainforest Foundation, Norway, was in Congo on a research trip and summed up the Bank's power thus: "If the Bank cut off funds to the DRC government and started imposing green criteria on new loans, and two or three of the most powerful embassies placed phone calls of concern to ministers, and European governments were ready with forest-conservation subsidies, things could be very different."

But in Congo, the Bank's hypocrisy knows no bounds: Despite its stated concern for the rule of law and sustainable forestry, its International Finance Corporation (IFC) is directly invested in some of the worst Congolese logging.

In mid-August the environment minister in Bandundu province impounded two barges of timber belonging to Olam, a $5 billion-a-year Singapore-based transnational corporation that the DRC accused of lying about the amount of timber it shipped, underpaying its taxes and using special "individual concessions" intended for small Congolese operators. The local government forced Olam to pay $34,000 in back taxes, plus some fines. Then in late August, Olam--still under pressure for what DRC officials say were numerous forms of environmentally destructive fraud--abruptly relinquished its two main timber concessions.

The World Bank, it turns out, had invested $15 million in Olam stock and in August still owned $11 million worth. IFC's spokesperson, Corrie Shanahan, was remarkably unfazed by the scandal. "Olam is a client of ours in several countries. We consider them to be a responsible company," said Shanahan. Asked if the DRC's legal actions against Olam were not grounds to reconsider the IFC's investment, Shanahan said, "We believe that Olam has good intentions, and I can't comment on the opinions of the DRC government."

To follow up on all these matters, I meet the DRC's minister of environment, Didace Pembe Bokiaga, in his mahogany-lined office. Behind his desk is a mounted water buffalo head and rising from the floor, two massive ivory elephant tusks. It's not the greenest image, but Pembe says the right things. "President Kabila is working very hard to root out corruption.... We have already recuperated 18 million hectares [of forest] for the state." This last is true, but most of it was land deemed unworthy of logging by timber firms.

"If these are the lungs of the planet, then the donor countries should subsidize us not to log most of it. But we need employment and we will have a sustainable forestry," says Pembe.

My faith in the minister is later shaken when an important timber executive tells how Pembe doubled the "area tax" on logging concessions, only to offer to undo the increase for a contribution of $300,000. The minister denies this charge.

Whatever the truth in this instance, Congo is still a kleptocracy; its massive civil service preys on every productive aspect of the economy. Transparency International rates it as one of the eight most corrupt nations on earth.

Corruption is a common complaint from the companies operating in the DRC, which also excoriate the government for its incompetence. The former general director of Safbois, Françoise Van de Ven, is secretary general of the DRC's main timber syndicate, the Fédération des Industriels du Bois. In her taut Flemish-accented English, she tells the familiar story of an industry under siege.

"This country is totally broken down. So we have to do everything. We build our own roads, run our own port facilities. You can't even get the normal large ships in the port at Matadi because the government has left it in ruins, undredged, no proper cranes. Everything is on the companies. And it is very expensive. At least 20 percent of operating costs goes to taxes. And what do we get? Nothing. And if we build the schools, which we do, will the government send teachers?" She pauses to take a drag on her cigarette and sip her latte.

Congo's culture of corruption extends even to many village chiefs. In one notorious case, a logging company called Safo provided cement, tin roofing, machetes, nets and other basic wares as part of its social contract. The materials went to village chiefs, but instead of hauling the goods to their communities, a merchant offered the chiefs cash for the supplies and resold the goods in nearby towns. Infuriated, the villagers blockaded roads, made threats of black magic against officials and clashed with police; several activists were detained, and one was beaten to death by cops.

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