DRC: Tshisekedi and the impossible clean-up of the Congolese forests

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Timber Trafficking

By Romain Gras
Posted on Friday, 15 July 2022 15:59

The Congolese head of state has promised to bring order to the forestry sector, but given the anarchy that reigns there, does he have the means to reassure donors and potential investors?

This is part 6 of a 6-part series

The date had been ticked off the Congolese diplomatic agenda for several months. Ministers, advisors, diplomats … A vast delegation walked the aisles of the Scottish Event Campus of Glasgow alongside Felix Tshisekedi on 2 November 2021.

Was COP26 the highlight of the mandate of the Congolese president at the head of the African Union (AU)? In Kinshasa it was said that it would be the culmination of the DRC’s “return to the world stage”. The language had been worked on for weeks. “My country, with its massive forests, peat bogs, water resources and strategic minerals, presents itself as a solution to the climate crisis,” Tshisekedi said at the podium.

Biden, ABO and Johnson

This is an attractive proposition since DRC is home to the majority of the Congo Basin forest, the world’s second largest lung. However, the management of the Congolese forestry sector has long been plagued by accusations of corruption and bad governance. That is why the head of state knew that he was expected at this major diplomatic gathering. “We are working to carry out actions that will not only preserve our forests, but also ensure their efficient management,” he said under the watchful eyes of his American and Gabonese counterparts, Joe Biden and Ali Bongo Ondimba.

Although he had been quiet on the subject of forest governance until then, the Congolese president had taken care to prepare the ground beforehand. Two weeks before COP26, Félix Tshisekedi had asked his environment minister, Eve Bazaiba Masudi, to “make a technical and financial inventory of all the DRC’s forest concessions and to suspend all dubious contracts pending the outcome of an audit”.

When you have a partnership with different players like this, transparency is essential

The mission was far from trivial, given the sums at stake. In Glasgow, Tshisekedi signed a letter of intent with then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which included a five-year, $500m funding agreement with the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), which is supposed to improve the protection of the Congolese forest.

‘No progress’

However, six months after the signing of this “historic deal”, there has been very little progress made on the commitments pledged by the various parties and the implementation of political milestones. One of the commitments was the publication of a report by the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF). Produced in 2020 under the government of Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, it provides an overview of the management of the Congolese forestry sector since 2014. The document was supposed to be made available to the public before the end of 2021, but this first deadline was not met.

This delay was one of the reasons for the visit by Zac Goldsmith, the British environment minister, to DRC at the end of March. “Since November, there has been no progress,” said Goldsmith, who had sought to ensure that the “big promises” made in Glasgow were kept. “When you have a partnership with different players like this, transparency is essential,” he said.

When contacted, Goldsmith’s DRC counterpart – Bazaiba – said the publication of the document was initially a request from the former prime minister’s administration. “We did not publish it in relation to the CAFI agreement,” said Masudi, who is also the deputy prime minister. She claims more control over the future management of CAFI funds, and defends her record saying: “I announced a series of 10 measures last July to improve forest governance.”

Eve Bazaiba in the middle of the Yangambi rainforest, during her “visit” to the “majestic tree of authenticity”, which is three centuries old, 45 metres high and 9 metres in diameter, on 20 January 2022 © Twitter Eve Bazaiba

‘Extreme complacency’ and ‘utter failure’

The report was finally made public on 1 April, in the wake of the British minister’s visit. However, it is unclear whether the 83-page document will reassure CAFI’s donors, as the report describes a chaotic sector. DRC has, in principle, a legislative framework to regulate logging. It is based on two texts published in 2002. On the one hand, there is a code that is supposed to regulate forest management, provide a framework and to make the industry profitable for the state. On the other hand, there is a moratorium prohibiting the granting of new concessions.

So much for the theory. As for the practice, the IGF – in its report – condemns the repeated violation of these two texts, and particularly of the moratorium, by the forestry administration.

“From concessions ceded back to the state […] and reallocated in violation of both the moratorium and the relevant provisions of the forestry code” to “systematic use of direct agreement by successive ministers”, the report is damning. The report documents no less than 18 concessions that have returned to the state’s private domain have been allocated in violation of the moratorium.

For years, we have been exposing bad governance: The non-transparency of the forestry sector, the non-payment of taxes.

The 2002 forestry code was also intended to enable the Congolese state to make maximum profit from the country’s forest resources, notably through the introduction of several taxes. However, twenty years later, the IGF report highlights the “Extreme complacency” and “utter failure” of the administration in supervising the rights owed to the state by logging companies. For the investigators, the application of these rules was “selective, even sentimental and arbitrary (…) which deprived the state of any guarantee of payment against defaulting operators”.

Today it is difficult to assess the Congolese state’s loss of income in this sector, but the problem seems to concern the majority of actors, since the anti-corruption agency explains that only four of the 45 operators listed have partially paid the surface fee, one of the taxes provided for in the forest code.

The losses amounted to $3.1m for the companies Congo King Baisheng Forestry Development, Congo Sunflower Forestry Development and Maniema Union alone. The latter, which is also suspected of having benefited from “deliberate favouritism” in the granting of a dozen forest concessions, has been criticised in several NGO reports.

Deforestation by loggers employed by a Swiss company, in 2010, in Oshwe © Marta NASCIMENTO/REA

Legal proceedings

Did these findings put off some donors? Most of CAFI’s partners refused to comment on them in any case. “The publication of the report shows that there is a political will on the part of the Congolese authorities. It would have been more problematic to discover certain facts once the process of putting the agreement in place was more advanced,” says a diplomat from one of CAFI’s main donors.

The various NGOs monitoring the issue have called for sanctions against the former ministers, administration officials and concession owners named in the report. “For years, we have been exposing bad governance: The non-transparency of the forestry sector, the non-payment of taxes. We regret that the report did not cover the period after 2020, because the situation has not changed,” says Irene Wabiwa Betoko, project manager for the Greenpeace Africa forest campaign.

The Congolese environment ministry assures us that measures have been taken to respond to the IGF’s conclusions. We were able to consult two recent decrees issued by Bazaiba. The first, signed on 5 April, orders the suspension of twelve forest concessions with a total surface area of nearly 2 million hectares, which were singled out in the report by an agency headed by Jules Alingete.

In December 2021, the minister had already suspended six concessions awarded to the company Tradelink, but this measure, taken late and after several alerts from NGOs, raised some questions. Greenpeace Africa also considered that the suspension of “only” 12 concessions cited by the IGF represented a “minimal response”.

The second ruling, signed on 20 April by Bazaiba, establishes a 16-member commission to review all logging and conservation concession contracts granted by the DRC to date. Its mandate will last three months, with the aim of “proposing legal proceedings against companies holding false forest concession contracts” and “applying fines against operators who are not in order”.

Photo of documents © DR

Against the clock

Another aspect that worries donors and environmentalists is the prospect of lifting the moratorium on the granting of logging concessions. This is one of the 10 measures “for sustainable management of natural resources” that Bazaiba announced in July 2021. However, for many NGOs and donors, the lifting of the moratorium is in contradiction with the reorganisation of the sector.

“For the partners, the end of the moratorium means the sell-off of Congolese forests, but all the fraudulent concessions we are talking about today were awarded during the moratorium,” says Bazaiba, who maintains her desire to repeal it by decree. “We will need another mechanism to replace this moratorium if it is lifted,” says the chancellery of one of CAFI’s partners.

The objective of this one-year, $900,000 contract is to promote the DRC as an international leader on climate change

At present, no timetable for the disbursement of the $500m from this initiative has been decided. A CAFI executive committee meeting was scheduled for the first week of May. “It will decide whether more guarantees are needed after the IGF report,” said one of the partners.

Engaged in a race against the clock to bring this agreement to a successful conclusion, the Congolese authorities, chosen to organise the pre-COP27, seem in any case determined to communicate. On 11 March, the government hired the services of the lobbying firm Ballard Partners, founded by Brian Ballard, a close friend of Donald Trump. The objective of this one-year, $900,000 contract is to “promote the DRC as an international leader on climate change”.

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