The Fight to Save Congo’s Forests

The Fight to Save Congo’s Forests

A history of colonial neglect and endemic corruption has unleashed a lawless logging binge in the heart of Congo’s massive woodlands.


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At the heart of central Africa’s great rainforests lies Kisangani, a small city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) some 1,300 miles from the mouth of the Congo River. The town began as a Belgian trading post, Stanleyville, and was Conrad’s model for Kurtz’s inner station in Heart of Darkness. No roads connect Kisangani to the rest of the world; over the past two decades they have all collapsed and been retaken by the jungle. Even river navigation is blocked beyond here, as a massive course of falls stretches for sixty miles upstream.

If the vast and isolated forests of the Congo Basin–the second-largest tropical woodlands on the planet–had a capital, it would be this sleepy city of crumbling colonial-era Art Deco buildings and empty boulevards. Down by the river women sell caterpillars to eat, but no one buys them. The sky is low and gray, but it never seems to rain. In the government buildings, yellow-eyed malarial old men sit in empty offices next to moldering stacks of handwritten files. There are no computers, electricity or, in many offices, even glass in the dark wooden window frames.

In a strange twist, this general dilapidation–the result of Congo’s traumatic history–has inadvertently preserved Congo’s massive tropical forests. First, Mobutu Sese Seko’s thirty-two-year kleptocracy destroyed what infrastructure the Belgians had built. Then years of civil war and invasion by Uganda and Rwanda took an estimated 4 million lives, through violence and the attendant ravages of disease. All this chaos warded off the great timber interests. As a result the Congo Basin’s massive forests–most of which lie within the DRC–are the world’s healthiest and most intact.

An estimated 40 million people depend on these woodlands, surviving on traditional livelihoods. At a global level, Congo’s forests act as the planet’s second lung, counterpart to the rapidly dwindling Amazon. They are a huge “carbon sink,” trapping carbon that could otherwise become carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. The Congo Basin holds roughly 8 percent of the world’s forest-based carbon. These jungles also affect rainfall across the North Atlantic. In other words, these distant forests are crucial to the future of climate stability, a bulwark against runaway climate change.

But the isolation of the DRC’s woodlands is ending. Since 2003 a massive United Nations mission has helped create relative stability, though several vicious and overlapping wars continue to gnaw at the country’s eastern regions. Now most of the DRC is safe for logging. Over the past four years timber firms have set upon the forest in search of high-priced hardwoods. They control about one-quarter of Congo’s forests, an area the size of California.

Blessed by the World Bank as catalysts of development, the companies operate largely unsupervised because the DRC lacks a functioning system of forest control. The government has written a new forestry code that requires companies to invest in local development and follow a supposedly sustainable, twenty-five-year cycle of rotational logging. But many companies ignore these stipulations; some have used intimidation and bribery; others log in blatantly illegal ways with no regard for the long-term damage they are causing.

And now the massive mahogany, afromosia, teak and wenge trees of Congo are making their way downriver, past the lower falls and over the sea to re-emerge as parquet flooring and lawn furniture in the homes of French, Italian and Chinese yuppies.

If these woodlands are deforested, the carbon they trap will be released into the atmosphere. Environmentalists say that if deforestation continues unabated, by 2050 the DRC could release as much carbon dioxide as Britain has in the past sixty years. On the ground, this would likely mean desertification, mass migration, hunger, banditry and war.

But an effort is afoot to halt Congo’s plunder. “This is a make or break period,” says Filip Verbelen, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace. “Logging is not helping the DRC’s economy, and it is destroying the environment. The damage has to be contained now before it is too late.”

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.

We ride farther in and soon the jungle opens onto huge smoldering clearings. Here another Blattner company, Busira Lomami, is clearing land for palm oil groves. It’s a dramatic example of the chain of exploitation created by logging: first come the roads, and the companies take a few hardwoods; then on those roads come poachers, settlers and agricultural companies, and the deforestation starts to pick up speed.

At the Safbois compound–a cluster of trailers and mud huts surrounded by a stockade wall–I meet Kanzi, the company’s chief engineer. Several months ago, when a Safbois official tried to sink a boat full of activists, a Greenpeace researcher and an Italian journalist were on board and filmed the event. The company came off looking thuggish, so now Safbois is on its best behavior. Kanzi stiffly but politely explains the situation from the company’s point of view.

He says that there have been big misunderstandings. The company stopped building the one school after conflicts emerged between villages. The company is waiting for agreement from all the people in the concession before beginning to build schools and clinics in earnest. And he says that far from being exploiters, the company is harassed by environmentalists, who force it to tiptoe around the elephants, okapi and other exotic forest-dwelling animals.

According to Kanzi, tax collectors besiege the company. He offers a rather unimpressive example. “We had to pay $10 just to bring in 20,000 liters of gasoline here at our port. That is very expensive.” He says, “The local people are happy to see us. But their friends and brothers, who have gone off to be educated, the intellectuals, they come back and excite the people to do bad things. They stir up trouble.” When I ask how much they have logged, Kanzi snaps that it is none of my business.

After our interview I tour the logging camp with another foreman. A stoned police officer with a pet monkey on his shoulder wanders around, and in the distance one can hear chain saws. A harsh sun breaks through the clouds. The foreman explains that the workers are all from distant parts of the country. At the Safbois camp they and their families live in dirt-floored huts. The foreman tells me (and my little video camera) that the Blattners have not paid the eighty or so loggers here since April–five months ago.

To understand the local government’s strange relationship of dependence on Safbois, I interview Crispin Kakwaka, the Administrateur de Territoire, at his office back in Isangi. Kakwaka describes the local government’s appalling lack of resources. “We have nothing for forest control,” he says. “The company gave us a few motorcycles for transportation, that is all. But we can’t even inspect the amount of timber the company is sending downriver. We have to rely on whatever statistics they supply.”

Coordinating opposition to Safbois is a small NGO called CAPDH. It survives on little grants, mostly from the Belgian government and UN civic education contracts it received during recent elections. Not quite a social movement or a social service organization, CAPDH is a network of about two dozen local intellectuals–part-time teachers, clerks, literate river pilots. Most, though not all, are men, and many of them studied for a few years at the provincial university in Kisangani.

“They [the police and provincial officials] forced the chiefs to sign the social agreement,” says Delphin Ningo Likula, CAPDH’s leader. “They surrounded the meeting and sent police after the chiefs who would not come to the meeting.” Another CAPDH activist, Emmanuel Bofia, tells me, “The company hides logs in the forest, so the true amount they are cutting is not known. They cut trees in graveyards, trees in village meeting areas. They take the caterpillar trees. They are even cutting in the nature preserves deep in the jungle.”

How does Safbois respond to these charges? Reached on his cellphone in Philadelphia, owner Daniel Blattner is irate. He denies that his firm is running amok in Isangi and explains away the villagers’ frustration as follows: “We have a twenty-five-year concession, and we are building infrastructure as we go. We cannot–it is impossible–to build it all at once! We gave out plenty of support–over sixty bicycles, farming implements. They want 450 kilometers of road. By the time we leave, they’ll have 1,000!”

About ten days after I left the Safbois concession, villagers, angry about broken promises and environmental damage, marched on the Safbois compound, pelting it with rocks. Police were called in and fired their guns into the air. Two protesters were reported injured. Days later, a survey party from a different timber firm was attacked near Isangi. The situation in the forest is tense. But to understand the forces driving these events, one must venture beyond the realm of villages, loggers, rough-edged timber camp managers and even comfortable Philadelphia-based capitalists like Daniel Blattner.

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 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.

The most cogent critic I met in Congo was Arthur Kepel.Born in Kinshasa, he was recruited into Mobutu’s secret police, was later the chief of intelligence for the UN mission here and is now with the International Crisis Group. His summation of the Congolese political class–a group he knows well–is painfully blunt: “They worship money. You should ask them, What are they doing for Congo? You can’t blame it all on the Belgians. What are these Congolese doing for their country now?” Not that Kepel spares the Belgians. “They owe a moral debt to this country. They plundered it.”

When I ask him about the international community, he again counters with a question. “What international community? Do the Americans and French coordinate against corruption here? Or does each ambassador try to get the best position for their own national interest, build relations that help the companies from their country get better deals? What do you think?”

Are there any politicians in Parliament who are genuinely trying to protect the environment and create development? Kepel pauses, scrolls through his phone, gives me a number. “But I warn you. He doesn’t shake hands.”

The next day I meet the man in question, Ne Muanda Nsemi, Member of Parliament and spiritual leader of a sect called Bund dia Kongo. Last May 134 of his followers were massacred by Kabila’s troops as they protested against dirty dealing in local elections. Nsemi wears yellow and white vestments and receives me at his simple compound in a hillside neighborhood of Kinshasa. He explains that around a distant star circles a planet called Kongo and that the inhabitants of the old Bakongo kingdom, which once ruled parts of western Congo, were descended from extraterrestrials and Ethiopians. The whole story involves a tsunami, sunken continents, migration from Australia and many other surprising details.

I wonder if this is Kepel’s idea of a joke. Then I get in a question about forest policy. Suddenly the millenarian discourse gives way to nuts-and-bolts politics. “The international community should pay for conferences that can be broadcast to educate people about the value of the forest and about the law. In Parliament we need to cooperate across party lines.” He says the DRC needs sustainable forest industries, scientific management of the resources and subsidies from industrialized economies to preserve the forest for the sake of climate stability. “This planet is getting warmer–everyone needs these forests.”

The main Congolese environmental organization working to save the forests is a small NGO called OCEAN, which serves as the link between international outfits like Greenpeace and local community groups in the concessions. This nascent green movement is calling for an immediate halt to illegal logging, by which they mean most logging in the DRC. But they also say that the DRC needs to develop the rule of law if a logging moratorium is to work–a long-term project, to say the least.

If the forests are to be saved, there will have to be north-to-south subsidies–call them conservation concessions or climate reparations. Paying the DRC not to log is hardly without problems, such as the boundless corruption of local officialdom–but even despite this, subsidies could help to keep chain saws and bulldozers out of the forests.

The communities desperately trying to leverage funds from logging firms will need something else in order to survive. And if massive subsidies are good enough for the tidy gingerbread farmsteads of Germany, the pretty backdrops of France and for US agribusiness, then surely the richest economies can spend to save the wilds of Congo, upon which we all depend. If Congo is deforested, the impact will be grim–and global.

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