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Protecting Congo’s forests: new timber parks will help fight illegal logging

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) joined the East African Community in 2022. This will offer the country, which has immense natural wealth, a huge market in neighbouring countries and direct access to new roads, railways and ports – and therefore potential global trade.

But as east African road and rail networks expand and transportation costs fall, the DRC’s eastern forests will become more vulnerable to surging demand by regional and global markets.

This could threaten one of the world’s richest biodiversity areas. The DRC’s eastern forests are one of the last remaining intact tracts of rainforest on the planet, second only to the Amazon. They help to regulate climate and provide resources – like food, medicines, materials and shelter – to millions of people. They’re also rich in minerals and forest products. Timber is highly coveted for its commercial value and, once roads are opened to harvest it, further encroachment and deforestation may follow.

Effective management and monitoring of timber harvesting and trade is therefore key to ensure the country’s laws are respected, a fair share of the benefits are captured, and illegal timber exports and tax fraud are reduced.

The country already has one of the highest annual deforestation rates on the planet. Since 2010, it has lost at least 500,000 hectares of forest every year, with peaks well above one million hectares per year. And while timber harvesting is not the largest contributor to the DRC’s deforestation rates – small-scale agriculture is – it remains a daily activity for thousands of operators serving the national and international markets.

In 2017 the DRC began to lay the legal groundwork to establish a series of “timber parks” at border crossings around the country, with an initial focus on the eastern borders. These would monitor timber exports and revenue collection.

Over a period of two and a half years, we worked with Congolese authorities and timber park officials to test the first timber park at a major eastern border, operational since August 2018. We wanted to determine how well the current system worked in assessing the volume of timber leaving the DRC’s eastern borders. We also wanted to know how it could be improved.

Together with the park team, we found that timber reached the border without proper paperwork (making it impossible to determine where it came from); that only part of the total volume was being correctly declared; and that the mis-declaration of tree species was common, leading to timber being improperly taxed or not taxed at all. In the process, both local communities and the government lose.

However we also found that the presence of the park, and the pressure put on traders, did improve things over time. Park personnel were also quick to adapt and adopt improved verification techniques, making illegal trade more difficult, if fully supported by their supervisors.

A long way to legal trade

We assessed a total of 341 timber operations. From Kisangani, on the bend of the Congo river, east-bound timber is trucked 700km overland to the border, usually in the form of sawn planks. These are unloaded and inspected at the timber park before continuing on towards markets in neighbouring countries, as well as Kenya and overseas.

We found that for every 100 cubic metres of timber declared on the official waybills, 157 cubic metres were actually transported – that is, 57 cubic metres were undeclared and unpaid for.

Timber parks, where the paperwork for loads of timber is inspected, can help stem the financial losses from illegal exports. Center for International Forestry Research - World Agroforestry

Of the 100 cubic metres listed on the waybills, only about half had proof of payment of the four major taxes owed to national, provincial and local governments for harvesting timber. This deprives local communities of much-needed financial resources.

Species mis-declaration was also common. For instance, about 20 of the same 100 cubic metres were declared as Mammea africana (local name bulungu), while observations by trained park staff, corroborated by laboratory analyses, indicated the wood belonged to the genus Afzelia, possibly A. bipindensis (commercial name doussié). This species carries the highest rate of taxation of all species and has recently been listed in Annex II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It requires increased scrutiny because it may become threatened with extinction.

Lastly, about 60 of the 100 cubic metres left the country undeclared, meaning only 18% of duties were paid. These discrepancies amount to revenue losses broadly estimated at about US$310,000 which, if fully collected, would pay for the park’s annual running costs and still contribute to the state coffers.

It’s important to note that, for the purpose of our research, we focused only on a small percentage of total timber exports. Available estimates of total exports from the eastern DRC vary from 65,000 to 200,000 cubic metres annually – putting potential losses at millions of US dollars every year.

Timber parks could help

Timber parks can be an effective tool for the DRC to stem the flow of financial losses from illegal timber exports. They send a clear signal to illegal traders that the old way of bribing your way out of the country is no more, or much more difficult to use. Up-scaling to all major border crossings, however, is needed to deny truckers the choice of crossing at borders without timber parks.

Critically, the park model needs the support of central, provincial and local governments to contribute to better environmental policies. Our results indicate that about 93% of the timber sampled bore no trace of an authorised logging permit. A logging permit can indicate whether the origin of timber is legal and, more importantly, whether sustainability standards should be applied during harvesting operations in the forest. With no title available, timber parks can increase revenue collection by taxing an illegally produced commodity, but it remains close to impossible to know whether the forest is responsibly managed and whether the forestry sector is following a sustainable path. Support from and coordination with the governments of producing provinces is thus critical, because they are the ones in charge of verifying the legality and sustainability of forest operations.

Lastly, as the DRC increases its trading connections to partner countries in the East African Community and the world, it should not be left alone in the battle against illegal timber trade. Neighbours such as Uganda, or even Kenya further down the trade routes, should improve the way incoming timber is verified and recorded. After all, exporting and importing countries carry shared and proportional responsibilities towards environmental stewardship. And once the DRC’s forests are gone, it’s all of us who will pay the price.

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