Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Selling off the African rainforest

Reminiscent of tales about the purchase of Manhattan from natives in exchange for beads comes this story that tracts of rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo covering an area the size of the United Kingdom have been obtained by logging companies from the United States, Singapore and various European countries for bags of sugar and crates of beer.

Of course, there is more to be outraged about than just a bad deal for the locals. This is about the ultimate destruction of a vast area of rainforest with profound negative impact on the environment as well on the lives of people in central Africa. A report from Greenpeace International argues, “international logging companies are causing social chaos and wreaking environmental havoc. It also reveals how the World Bank, by far the largest donor to the DRC, is failing to stop this destruction whilst the rainforest is being sold off under the illusion that it will alleviate poverty in one of the poorest countries on Earth.”

This from today’s Guardian:
Vast tracts of the world's second-largest rainforest have been obtained by a small group of European and American industrial logging companies in return for minimal taxes and gifts of salt, sugar and tools, a two-year investigation will disclose today.

More than 150 contracts covering an area of rainforest nearly the size of the United Kingdom have been signed with 20 companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past three years. Many are believed to have been illegally allocated in 2002 by a transition government emerging from a decade of civil wars and are in defiance of a World Bank moratorium.

According to the report, the companies, mainly from Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Singapore and the US, are already stripping from the 21m hectares (52m acres) of forest, primarily to extract African teak, which sells for more than £500 a cubic metre and is widely used for flooring, furniture and doors in Britain.

According to the 100-page study, compiled by Greenpeace International working with Congolese ecological and human rights groups, if all the forests identified for logging are felled, it could "release" up to 34bn tonnes of carbon - nearly as much as Britain has emitted in 60 years.

To gain access to the forests for the next 25 years, the European companies have made agreements with village chiefs, offering bags of salt, machetes and bicycles, and in some cases promised to build rudimentary schools, the report states.

Yesterday the companies admitted that many of the agreements that they have signed with local communities in return for gifts needed to be reassessed. "Many of the criticisms are valid. The companies are now going to re-evaluate all the agreements made with communities," said Francoise van de Ven, secretary general of the Congolese Timber Industries Federation, which represents all the international firms named in the report.

Hilary Benn, the UK international development secretary, said: "50 million people rely on the rainforest of the Congo for food, shelter and livelihoods. We rely on it as an ecological handbreak for our rapidly changing climate."

The report criticises the World Bank for encouraging logging in Congo in the knowledge that corruption was rife. It refused to comment until the report has been published.

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