January 19, 2009

Government Stops Illegal Logging In The Congo

Govenrment officials said on Monday that logging must stop on nearly 13 million hectares of forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, after a government review canceled nearly 60 percent of the vast country's timber contracts.

The Congo is home to the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon.

A long-delayed review of 156 logging deals aimed at stamping out corruption in the sector and enforcing minimum legal and environmental standards has finally been completed, Reuters reported.

The Congo Basin is suffering severe environmental damage due to logging, mining and land clearance for farming, which accounts for more than a quarter of the world's tropical forest, at a rate of over 800,000 hectares a year"”an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.

A panel of government ministers backed by the World Bank found that only 65 timber deals were viable. Environment Minister Jose Endundo told a news conference in Kinshasa that the rest would now be canceled.

"I will proceed within the next 48 hours to notify those applicants having received an unfavorable recommendation from the interministerial commission through decrees canceling their respective conventions," he said.

Endundo said after notification of the cancellation decision, the operator must immediately stop cutting timber.

Reuters reported that timber rights held by companies whose contracts were canceled by the commission make up 57 percent of over 22 million hectares currently allotted for logging.

Nearly 10 million hectares remain as exploitable concessions.

However, the government plans to respect a widely ignored moratorium on granting new timber deals, put in place during Congo's 1998-2003 war but, Endundo said.

Nineteen questionable contracts were given the green light during an appeals process completed recently, but a final list of companies with concession now due to be canceled has not been released.

Experts evaluating the legal and technical aspects of the Congo timber deals recommended that contracts belonging to a subsidiary of Germany's Danzer Group and to Portuguese-owned Sodefor should be revoked.

A third company, Safbois, also saw its agreements slated for cancellation. Researchers say, together, the three firms account for more than 66 percent of all timber exported from Congo.

Despite the official moratorium, most of the country's logging deals came about during the war or by a three-year corruption-plagued interim government that ruled after it.

Congo exported around 500,000 cubic meters of timber a year before the former Belgian colony descended into more than a decade of political turmoil and war in 1992.

After rampant corruption took hold by 2002, less than 100,000 cubic meters were officially declared for export while much of the country was under rebel control.

The Environment Ministry said Congo today exports around 200,000 cubic meters of timber annually, mostly to Europe, but tax revenues from the sector are minimal.

Ministry officials said one of the review's goals is to help the state recoup millions of dollars in lost taxes.