October 28, 2005

Congo logging ban gets teeth: Greenpeace

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The world's second largest rainforest
stands a greater chance of being protected after Congo's
president finally backed a largely ignored ban on new logging,
conservation group Greenpeace said on Friday.

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

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

"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 neighboring 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."