By Chris Lang -
Last week, the President of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, flew to Paris in a hired Boeing 787 Dreamliner, one of the most luxurious planes in the world. Le Figaro estimates that a one-way flight from Brazzaville to Paris would cost about US$500,000. Needless to say, Sassou Nguesso’s wife, Antoinette, travelled with him.
Sassou Nguesso’s first meeting was with France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, to discuss the protection of the Congo Basin’s rainforests.
Macron signed a letter of intent to hand over US$65 million to the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). Norway, France, and the European Union will contribute US$45 million The remaining US$20 million will be split between the French Development Agency (AFD), the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the German Federal Ministry of the Environment (BMU).
Launched in September 2015, it didn’t take long for CAFI to run into difficulties, with the Democratic Republic of Congo issuing a series of illegal logging concessions covering thousands of square kilometres. To make matters worse, this was followed by a series of oil concessions.
The Republic of Congo is following pretty much the same path as its neighbour. Almost two-thirds of the country’s forests are under logging concessions – a total of almost 14 million hectares. Earlier this year, the Environmental Investigation Agency put out a report about illegal logging in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
One company, the Dejia Group, controls 1.5 million hectares in the two countries. EIA’s investigation exposes how the company used bribery to obtain huge areas of forest, over-harvested concessions, and evaded millions of dollars of taxes every year.
In the Republic of Congo, the Dejia Group exported more than 100,000 logs above the company’s legal quota over a four year period. That’s more than US$80 million worth of timber.
EIA investigators went undercover and spoke to a director of a Dejia Group affiliate in the Republic of Congo. He told them about a “briefcase full of cash” sent to then-Minister of the Forest Economy, Henry Djombo – to make sure the company would not face any problems.
Oil palm plantations
In 2010, the government of the Republic of Congo handed over an area of 470,000 hectares to a company called Atama Plantation SARL. When Rainforest Foundation UK investigated the company, they found a “web of ‘shell’ companies registered in secretive tax havens”.
This map produced by Earthsight shows Atama’s oil palm concession area overlaid on a map of Intact Forest Landscapes:
Earthsight’s Illegal Deforestation Monitor reports that “key players included Malaysian property magnate Robert Tan and Reuban Ratnasingam, the boss of one of Congo’s largest and most notorious Malaysian-owned logging firms”. In 2012, Malaysian company Wah Seong bought Atama. In December 2017, Wah Seong sold its share of the Atama to a Malaysian shell company called Agro Panorama.
Atama planned to establish 180,000 hectares of oil palm plantations. In fact, the company planted few oil palm trees. But it did log large areas of commercially valuable timber – both inside and outside its concessions. By 2016, the company gave up any pretence of establishing plantations, and focussed on logging as much and as quickly as it could.
“During late 2016 and into early 2017, satellite images show Atama was illegally logging 25 football pitches of prime gorilla habitat every single day,” Illegal Deforestation Monitor writes.
In February 2017, the Republic of Congo suspended the company’s illegal logging operations. Nevertheless, the company continued logging.
At a meeting in October 2017, high-level government representatives announced the government’s continued support of Atama.
A company linked to Atama, Lexus Agric, is logging forest in southern Congo to make way for oil palm and rubber plantations. In 2013, Lexus Agric was issued a license for a 50,000 hectare concession in Lekoumou province. Most of the concession area is densely forested.
The company did not carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment, as required by Congolese law. In July 2016, the official Independent Monitor found that Lexus Agric continued clearing forest even though its authorisation from the Forestry Department had expired the previous month.
The Director General of Lexus Agric, Jeremie Issamou, was also the Assistant Director of Atama until 2015.
Here’s Illegal Logging Monitor again:
In June 2016, while both Atama and Lexus were busy logging illegally, Issamou posted a picture of a giant log on the back of a truck on his Facebook page. The log appears to carry the markings of Atama. A Facebook friend commented, saying (in French) “Be careful. Don’t brag too much about your secondary activity. Otherwise sanctions. Moreover, aide-Memoire: July for objective control”.
The person who made that comment was none other than Simon Dieudonné Savou, the Director General of Agriculture in Republic of Congo. Savou has for some time been travelling to international climate and forest meetings, extolling the environmental virtues of the country’s plans for its palm oil industry….
The ‘secondary activity’ to which Savou was referring was the logging and timber processing. The ‘aide-Memoire’, meanwhile, appears to have been a warning regarding inspections. In July 2016, the Independent Monitor did visit both Atama and Lexus Agric, accompanied by forestry officials.
The Cuvette Centrale Peatlands is the world’s largest peatland. And the Republic of Congo is handing out oil concessions in the Cuvette Centrale:
Exploration for oil in the Ngoki block started earlier this year. Global Witness points out that 64% of the Ngoki block is peatland.
Two of the concessions are allocated to the French oil and gas corporation, Total. The day after his meeting with President Macron, Sassou Nguesso had a meeting with Patrick Pouyanne, the CEO of Total.
Will CAFI stop forest and peatland destruction?
The CAFI letter of intent aims to keep deforestation in the Republic of Congo below 20,000 hectares per year, outside areas with the highest conservation value.
According to Global Forest Watch tree cover loss (which isn’t the same thing as deforestation) for the past three years is as follows:
2016: 114,000 ha
2017: 63,900 ha
2018: 62,700 ha
In 2014, according to the World Resources Institute, the Republic of Congo had 72,000 hectares of eucalyptus, pine, and limba tree plantations. Some of the tree cover loss could come from clearing plantations.
Primary forest loss in the last three years, according to Global Forest Watch, is as follows:
2016: 43,659 ha
2017: 26,703 ha
2018: 26,847 ha
Presumably the figures for primary forest loss will have to reduce to zero under CAFI’s proposals.
But how exactly CAFI will achieve this, without addressing the root causes of deforestation, is anybody’s guess.
For example, how does CAFI propose to address the corruption that is rampant in the forestry sector of the Republic of Congo? How will it address illegal logging? How will it address the fact that the government is handing out oil concessions and has given away vast areas to oil palm plantations?
Norway’s State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, Atle Hamar, acknowledges the serious impacts that oil exploration and drilling would have on the Republic of Congo’s peatlands. But he argues that CAFI has to respect nation states’ rights to trash the forests:
We cannot or will not instruct national authorities. Norway supports countries that want to make choices that reduce deforestation, but we cannot demand a halt to all deforestation before we cooperate.
Hamar says that if the Republic of Congo fails to meet the environmental requirements in the Letter of Intent, CAFI can withhold payments. But the money that the government of the Republic of Congo can make from oil concessions (especially when corruption is factored in) far outweighs the money likely to come from CAFI.
Global Witness is calling for a ban on all oil exploration in or near the peatlands, and a ban on all commercial logging and agriculture, mining, oil drilling, and road development around the peatland areas.
“This deal is going to be broken, it’s just a matter of time. The question then is what CAFI will do,” Esben Marcussen, rainforest adviser in Greenpeace Norway, tells Norwegian newspaper Bistands Aktuelt. “With oil discoveries, pressure on peatlands will increase dramatically. It will bring more infrastructure and population pressure.”