INTERVIEW - President's Backing May Protect Congo Rainforest
Country: DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Author: David Lewis
Democratic Republic of Congo's government imposed a ban in 2002 on the allocation of new logging concessions to prevent rampant deforestation in the vast, central African country but the moratorium has since been widely flouted.
President Joseph Kabila this week signed a decree in support of the ban, a move which Greenpeace said should stop more concessions being handed out and force a review of millions of hectares already illegally allocated.
"There have been a lot of violations of this moratorium," Greenpeace forestry campaigner Filip Verbelen told Reuters in an interview in Kinshasa. "But now it has been approved at the highest level and there is no other possible interpretation."
Congo has some 100 million hectares (250 million acres) of rainforest, most of which has remained untouched due to inaccessibility and years of war.
But as peace returns and logging companies follow suit, environmentalists fear the Congo Basin -- more than one million square miles stretching from eastern Congo to the coast of the Gulf of Guinea -- will be carved up without proper environmental planning or consideration for the communities living there.
"About six million hectares have been allocated since 2002 -- these will all have to be reviewed," Verbelen told Reuters. "Now this has the president's signature, it may make officials think twice about allocating any more."
As well as the ban on new concessions, Congo drew up a forestry code in 2002 that, in theory, ensured civil society and local populations had a say in how the forests were carved up.
It also called for logging concessions to be distributed by public auction and for 40 percent of the money the government made to be returned to the communities the trees came from.
But with corruption rife and central authority often lacking in Congo's vast interior, environmentalists fear a rapid expansion of logging will be unsustainable and offer little economic benefit for Congo's impoverished people.
"Congo is the last battlefield in the Congo Basin and everyone is trying to get a slice of the action," Verbelen said.
"This is the last place where we can think big in terms of biodiversity so we need to take a break and think about conservation and proper land use planning," he said.
Congo's wealth of natural resources contributed to a decade of conflict during which at least six neighbouring countries sent in soldiers to defend the government or back rebels.
During the last war, which officially ended in 2003, the belligerents were all accused of taking advantage of the power vacuum to plunder Congo's minerals, diamonds and timber.
The international community is trying to help a fragile and deeply divided transitional government restore the authority of the state across the nation.
But Verbelen said more must be done: "There is a lack of capacity to follow up on the forestry code. It is good to have this moratorium but the donors must invest to make sure that there is a capacity to enforce it."