A recent report by conservation non-governmental organization Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) is decrying what it says is Norwegian government complicity in funding a project it alleges could result in the clearance of vast tracts of Congo rainforest and the release of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But Norway's Ministry of Climate and Environment says the report is overblown and the situation more complicated than RFUK contends.
RFUK's report spotlights a project funded through Norway's Central Africa Forest Initiative that it says could increase the area comprised by logging concessions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by 20 million hectares. The project is part the French Development Agency (AFD)'s Sustainable Forest Management Programme.
According to the report, the concessions stand to include more than 10,000 square kilometers of peat swamp. Peat is a kind of swampy soil made up of partially decayed organic matter that accumulates over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Often reaching more than 13 feet deep, areas of peat have been found as deep as 65 feet.
Naturally waterlogged, peat becomes highly combustible if it is drained and dries out. And if fire ignites on dried peatland, it can be extremely difficult to stop. Such was the case in Indonesia at the end of 2015 when the country and others nearby were racked with a haze crisis so severe that scientists estimate it contributed to the premature deaths of at least 100,000 people and released more CO2 than Germany does in a year. The haze was caused by smoke from out-of-control wildfires, primarily on peatlands that had been drained for agriculture, which burned an area the size of the state of Vermont. In response, Indonesia's president Joko Widodo banned clearing and conversion of the country's remaining peatlands.
Areas allotted for timber concessions in the DRC overlie parts of world's largest known tropical peatland. Mapped for the first time earlier this year, this massive peat swamp comprises approximately 56,200 square miles—an area equivalent to England in size. Researchers estimate it stores some 30 billion metric tons of carbon.
Logging on swamplands is prohibited in the DRC. But in its report, RFUK contends the legislation does not actually define what constitutes a swamp, thus potentially creating a loophole for exploitation.
RFUK estimates about 2.8 billion metric tons of peatland carbon may be released if forest is destroyed in new concession areas. In total, the organization says 3.4 billion metric tons of carbon could be emitted if concessions become active.
"Analysis carried out by the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) indicates that, as well as releasing ~0.6 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide from the direct impact of logging activities, the likely new logging areas would substantially overlap areas of high carbon peatlands, placing an additional 2.8 Gt of carbon – or roughly 10.4 Gt of carbon dioxide – at increased risk of release to the atmosphere if these critical ecosystems are degraded and destroyed," the RFUK report reads. "This is equivalent to nearly 200 years of Norway's current national annual greenhouse gas emissions."
Further analysis by RFUK indicates illegal concessions currently comprise around five million hectares. The organization urges Norway to aim its attention at canceling and dismantling these concessions rather than funding the establishment of more.
"By refusing to insist that Congo's illegal concessions are shut down, it is encouraging impunity for law-breaking and bad forest governance," RFUK director Simon Counsell said in a statement. "Norway should now state that its funding for DRC's forestry projects will be halted until all illegal logging concessions have been canceled."
A Mysterious Contract
Independent researcher Arnaud Labrousse commended the RFUK report as "excellent." Labrousse specializes in Central Africa forestry issues, and brought up additional concerns about an alleged award of an $11.7 million REDD+ contract by DRC's Kabila administration to French firm CERENE Services to map 1.5 million hectares of DRC forest.
In brief, REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation and is a program administered under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change that aims to mitigate carbon emissions through improved forest management in tropical countries. Under REDD+, developed countries provide financial incentives to developing countries to help them pay for forest management enhancement projects.
Norway's CAFI is one of these projects—the largest-ever in Africa when it signed a letter of intent (LoI) for $200 million with DRC's minister of finance in April of 2016.
CERENE was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2011, according to French investigative and opinion journal Mediapart. CERENE's "innovation director" Gérard Royal is the brother of Ségolène Royal, who was France's environment minister at the time the contract was awarded, leading Labrousse to question if the company benefited from a political "boost" during negotiations. The funding source of the contract has not been made publicly available, but Labrousse refers to it as an "enormous elephant in the room" for CAFI, which he says is "desperately trying to convince non-governmental organizations that the present government is a credible interlocutor."
Association between CAFI and CERENE was refuted by Per F.I. Pharo, director of the Government of Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative.
"CAFI is not, and do not plan to be, involved in CERENE generally and this contract more specifically," Pharo says. "We are not familiar with the details of this contract, including how it will be financed."
Pharo said he and his colleagues are working to collect more information about the CERENE contract and allegations involving the company and "whether it will be appropriate for CAFI to take any action."
Mongabay reached out to CERENE and the DRC's Ministry of Finance, but no responses were forthcoming.
Norway did not respond lightly to RFUK's report. In a statement released earlier this month, the Ministry of Climate and Environment took exception to the report's claim that the country's approach to protecting DRC forest is to "hand it over to the logging companies."
"These allegations have no basis in reality," the statement reads.
The statement goes on to explain that effective management of DRC forests is a "challenging task" due to weak governing capacity, structural deficiencies, and continued instability from long periods of conflict.
The statement points to CAFI successes such as the revocation of illegal logging concessions, as well as the rejection of an initial proposal: "Reform of the DRC's commercial logging sector is one component of this program (though receiving less than 2 percent of the overall CAFI funding to the DRC). RFUK is well aware that their allegations towards Norway and CAFI all relate to a project proposal that has been rejected by the technical committee of DRC's national REDD+ fund, in large measure due to concerns raised by Norway."
In emails to Mongabay, Pharo says a revised version of the proposal has been submitted by the AFD and will be reviewed again by a technical committee in the coming weeks.
"Among the key recommendations Norway has made to the program document is the importance that the program document should not conclude on important policy choices that should be the product of a thorough and inclusive process at country level," Pharo says. "Furthermore, we have insisted on the sequencing and quality of the activities related to the industrial sector, and made it clear that the logging moratorium can only be considered lifted, if and when the conditions set out in the LoI and the Congolese law have been met."
A governmental moratorium on new logging concessions has been in place in the DRC since 2002. According to the LoI, the conditions required for lifting it include the integration of REDD+ and sustainable development projects.
"We also believe the program needs to strengthen the focus on the social aspects of the forest sector, strengthen the budgets to the independent forest monitoring and combatting illegal logging, build upon the lessons learned and already existing processes related to community forests," Pharo says.
He continued, explaining that risk management is key to the program's success: "We know that the risks are high in the forest sector. Since the first proposal was drafted, the national REDD fund in DRC has organized a five-day multi stakeholder risk management work shop in Kinshasa that has identified risk elements for the forest sector and possible mitigation actions. AFD has thus been asked to incorporate this work in the revised proposal."
Pharo said RFUK's analysis wrongly assumed that old concessions phased out prior to 2005 will be re-established in the future. This is not likely to happen, he says, because many overlie swamp areas where logging is prohibited, logging areas can only be extended once the LoI's conditions have been met and, in the event these conditions are met, potential new logging areas will be defined via a "thorough consultative and targeted land use planning process."
"Provided that our comments are taken into account, we see this program as an opportunity to improve the forest management and governance in the DRC," Pharo says. "Unlike the picture RFUK is drawing in its communication, this is a broad program that will, among other things, support DRC to establish, through an inclusive process, a new forest policy, an action plan to combat illegal logging, strengthen the independent monitoring of the forest sector, strengthen the authorities' capacity to enforce their laws, testing different forest management models and supporting more sustainable forest management. "In sum," Pharo says, "the ambition is that the program will contribute to reduced emissions, not increased, as indicated by RFUK."
A Challenging Task
Despite differences of opinion on how to best protect and manage the DRC's forests, one commonality emerges: a hard road lies ahead. Both RFUK's report and Norway's statement highlight governance issues as major roadblocks to affecting successful conservation programs in the country, a sentiment shared by other institutions such as United Kingdom-based independent policy institute Chatham House.
"The RF-UK briefing highlights some of the major challenges that are facing the DRC's forest sector—namely, the very weak governance in the country which means there is limited ability for the government to control its forest resources and to implement effective planning and management," says Chatham House's Alison Hoare. Hoare is a senior research fellow whose expertise includes forest governance, natural resource use, and community forestry.
To illustrate the scale of the challenge in the DRC, Hoare points to Chatham House research estimating that 90 percent of logging in the country was done illegally as of 2013. The study attributes most of this logging to small, informal operations that supply domestic and regional markets, and found the volume of harvesting had doubled over the previous six years as population and income levels increased.
Satellite data from the University of Maryland show tree cover loss rates growing steadily over the past decade in the DRC, peaking at more than 1.3 million hectares (13,000 square kilometers) in 2014 before dipping back down to 928,000 hectares in 2015. Most of this loss occurred in and around primary forests.
Hoare underlined the need for a sustainable forest sector in the DRC, one that will help alleviate poverty while meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. But she said that, for this to be possible, the country's governance must significantly improve. She lauded Norway and CAFI's acknowledgment of this issue.
"This has been clearly recognized by Norway, and the other CAFI partners, as reflected by the milestones set out in the LoI," Hoare writes in an email. "It is also very positive that Norway has highlighted the importance of the sequencing and the quality of the activities that it supports."
But, Hoare cautioned, much work remains to be done if the DRC is going to meet the LoI's milestones set for the end of 2018.
"These include: adoption of a forest policy, based on a participatory process with all relevant stakeholders; implementation of local and community forest management models; application of the Forest Code to all existing Concessions; and elaboration of an ambitious plan to fight illegal logging," she writes. "Further, the milestones note the need to meet the legal conditions before the logging moratorium is lifted, and also to implement land-use planning."
Hoare says that succeeding in these milestones would be a "remarkable achievement" for the DRC and urges CAFI to target its support at activities that will help make such an achievement a reality. "Most importantly, this means establishing an effective legal and institutional framework for the sector, and ensuring much greater transparency and accountability."
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.