The Congo rainforest of central Africa

Last edited 19 April 2007 at 9:56am

Stretching across central Africa, the rainforest of the Congo basin is the second largest on Earth; only the Amazon is larger. Around two-thirds of the region's intact forest is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but it also covers large areas of Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.

Millions of people across the region depend on the forest for food, medicine and shelter, and the cultures of many communities are founded on their relationship with the forest. No less than two-thirds of the DRC's 60 million people rely on the forest in one way or another.

The wealth of biodiversity is also immense. Forest elephants roam the area as do three species of great ape: gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. Animals and birds such as okapi and the Congo peacock are found nowhere else. And, as with all large forest areas, the Congo plays a vital role in regulating climate, both locally and globally.

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Under threat

In spite of all this natural wealth (or, more to the point, because of it), the African forests are under threat: titles for these areas across central Africa already cover some 50 million hectares -- an area the size of Spain - and efforts to preserve what remains are being hampered by a lack of political will, money and staff as well as widespread corruption.

More than 20 million hectares of logging titles are in the DRC, where international logging companies are causing social chaos and environmental havoc. Efforts by the World Bank, by far the largest donor to the country, to control the logging industry are failing.

Meanwhile the rainforest is being sold off under the illusion that the DRC's timber industry will kick starting the country's economy, lifting its people out of poverty and encouraging development.

But this simply isn't happening. Our investigations have shown that the World Bank's favoured strategy across the region - using taxes collected from logging companies to fund essentials like education and healthcare for local communities - doesn't work. Even the World Bank admits that not one dollar of logging taxes collected in the DRC between 2003 and 2006 has reached local communities.

Contracts of shame

In the DRC, we've also shown that in exchange for the rights to log timber worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars, companies may give communities gifts worth as little as $100. These 'social responsibility contracts' provide gifts like salt, beer, soap and sugar and are little more than licences to loot the country's rainforest, so we prefer to call them 'contracts of shame'. Schools and hospitals promised by the loggers also fail to materialise but the communities are also forced to sign away their right to protest. Those who do are often met with intimidation and sometimes arrest as the local authorities side with the loggers.

The impact of uncontrolled logging on climate change could be catastrophic. If current trends continue, by 2050 deforestation in the DRC will release about the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere as the UK has over the last sixty years.

Action needs to be taken to prevent industrial logging leaving a trail of environmental and social problems in of the Congo rainforest. International donors like the World Bank and the UK government have the power to do this by recognising their development plans don't work and instead work with African government to develop alternative solutions that protects the rainforest for the people and wildlife that depend on it for their survival.

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