ANNANDALE, New Jersey — The Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest, is more than a collection of trees and wildlife. For the world, it is a purifier that removes harmful carbon emissions from the air. For many Congolese, it is the lifeblood of their lives. However, logging in the Congo Basin presents threats.
The Basin’s Blight of Logging
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is home to the most significant portion of the Congo Basin. According to the World Bank, the DRC is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In 2018, 73% of the nation’s citizens lived on a daily wage of less than $1.90.
Logging is a ubiquitous industry in the DRC and is causing rising deforestation in the Congo Basin. According to Timber Legality Risk Dashboard 2021, between 2010 and 2020, the DRC has lost 1 million hectares (2.47 million miles) of rainforest annually.
Much of the logging people conduct in the DRC is illegal. The central African nation has stringent measures to protect its forests from illegal logging. However, rampant corruption and poor enforcement of these laws have precluded the government from reigning in the logging industry.
Despite the nation’s 20-year moratorium on awarding industrial logging companies with new contracts, government leaders continue to line their pockets by illegally distributing lands of the Congo Basin to large logging organizations. According to The Guardian, a 2022 audit discovered “that six successive ministers had illegally allocated at least 18 logging concessions.” While large and often foreign businesses are profiting from the DRC’s natural resources, the Congolese rely on the Congo Basin to survive.
A Precarious Journey
Climate reporter Dionne Searcey and photographer Ashley Gilbertson traveled to the DRC in March 2022. Their task was to explore how illegal logging affected the Congolese. They began in the community of Loaka and traveled 500 miles to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. They covered this lengthy distance via raft and observed the perils that millions of Congolese have to overcome in order to deliver logs for the purpose of processing and selling them.
The pair drifted down the Congo River and “passed ramshackle rafts…and met people whose fingers had been crushed or severed while trying to reel in logs that had broken free.” The raft constantly grazed the sandbar, an incessant irritation to everyone on board.
Many feared a downturn in the weather for a particularly tempestuous storm could knock loose logs into the waters of the Congo River. However, lost logs were not the only worry. After a particularly violent rainstorm in Bolobo, the owner of the logs, Etienne Yaekela, was just glad that no crew members died, The New York Times reported.
In addition to sandbars and storms, the Congolese navy was also a danger, according to the New York Times. Officers of the underfunded government branch would often accost crews of logging expeditions and steal anything they could find. Frequently, they had scant supplies.
For the crews who were able to turn a profit from this perilous trip, there was a brief time to celebrate. However, the joy was fleeting because it was time to return home for another voyage.
The Response of the Government and NGOs
Searcey’s journalism reveals the human toll of logging in the Congo Basin. This has put pressure on the Congolese government and NGOs to respond.
During the 2021 COP 26 summit in Glasgow, U.K., the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) pledged $500 million to protect the Congo Basin. DRC President Felix Tshisekedi vowed to be a “Solution Country” and use these funds to curtail deforestation. However, the 2022 audit suggests that corruption remains prevalent nationwide.
One NGO that has supported Congolese loggers is Agence Française De Développement (AFD). This organization focuses on responsible forestry and equitably distributing the proceeds from logging. In its 30-year activity in the region, the AFD has conducted 33 projects and spent more than $130 million to protect the Congo Basin. AFD Biodiversity advisor Christophe du Castel believes their efforts have ameliorated deforestation rates because rates in the Amazon are 10 times higher than in the DRC.
Searcey’s expose revealed that many Congolese have to undertake a laborious and treacherous journey along the Congo River to earn an income. However, there is a reason for optimism. The $500 million investment from CAFI may assist President Tshisekedi’s administration in cleaning up corruption and bolstering logging regulations. Additionally, work by NGOs like AFD helps loggers make a living while preserving the Congo Basin.
Finally, Searcey’s piece could likely encourage more activism for the Congolese loggers. A hopeful future is on the horizon.
– Alexander Portner