Congo forest company goes “green”
By Constance Hegner*
A siren is heard blasting over the town of Pokola in the northern part of the Republic of Congo, warning hordes of passers-by to immediately clear the way for a rapidly approaching airplane.
When not being used for arriving and departing flights, Pokola’s makeshift landing strip in the middle of town serves as an important thoroughfare and gathering point. Originally, the landing strip was situated outside of town in a clearing in the dense tropical rainforest. But as the settlement grew from a small timber camp to a bustling town of over 13,000 inhabitants, houses and markets started to spring up around the strip.
Today, business in Pokola is booming, especially its forestry sector, which exploits the rich natural resources of the Congo. Many wonder how long the economic growth can continue.
“Timber companies are not always out to empty the rainforest of trees,” said Jacob Sterling, Conservation Director at WWF-Denmark. “In spite of all the hurdles, there are some companies working on ensuring that the industry is sustainable and can benefit the local community and contribute to the development of the national economy.”
Investing in people
One such timber company is CIB (Congolaise Industrielle des Bois), the town’s largest employer, with over 1,700 employees. The company, owned by Danish timber giant Dalhoff Larsen & Horneman A/S (DLH), has at its disposal huge concessions in northern Congo (1.3 million hectares), constituting the largest economic activity in the region with its numerous logging-related activities and sawmill plants.
As is often the case, makeshift sawmills in the middle of a forest — far away from government control and oversight — can be a recipe for deforestation. But it’s not like that in Pokola. Here, sustainable forestry is the norm in a region plagued by illegal logging and forest conversion.
“Guided by sustainable management policies, we are investing in the area based on a long-term vision to preserve the forest’s resources,” said Lucas van der Walt, CIB’s environmental coordinator.
“This is not only for the benefit of the forest, but for the benefit of local communities that are dependent on these forests.”
As many of Pokola’s children will one day be working at a nearby sawmill, CIB feels it has a direct interest in its future workforce and is investing in the local schools. The forest company has also established a hospital where it offers affordable medical care for the employees and their families.
“It is the company’s social responsibility to invest in future generations,” van der Walt added.
But this environmental and social consciousness was not always the trademark of CIB.
In the 1990s, the company was repeatedly criticized by several environmental groups, including WWF, for its inability to control the poaching of such threatened species as gorillas and chimpanzees, and for its mistreatment of the indigenous pygmy population. Some of its forestry practices were also questioned for the impact they were having on the rainforest.
By the end of that decade, however, CIB started to heed the groups’ concerns and began to move to sustainable forestry.
As part of the process, they developed a forest management plan based on sustainable felling, as well as a comprehensive inventory of tree species and wildlife. It took three years and hundreds of employees to map their forest concessions in northern Congo.
“This knowledge allows us to carefully plan the selective extraction of certain trees in order to minimize our impact on the forests and to avoid areas of cultural importance and other sensitive habitats,” van der Walt said.
Today, the company harvests on average only one tree per hectare over a 30-year period. By any tree-felling standard this practice is considered very cautious, giving the forest the right conditions to regenerate after the chainsaws are silenced.
If too many trees are cut, not only will the forest degenerate but it would mean an end to CIB’s timber business, and by extension, an end to the town’s improved social benefits.
Part of the forest management plan also includes working with the largely disenfranchised forest-dwelling pygmy groups living inside CIB’s concessions. To help avoid felling trees in areas important to the pygmies, they were asked to mark where they live, their burial grounds, and hunting and fishing spots with satellite-tracking GPS coordinates. This unique participatory forest management is providing a good basis for dialogue between the pygmies and the company on the use of the forest.
CIB’s efforts to implement responsible forestry reached a significant milestone in 2006 when its Kabo concession (296,000 hectares) received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as proof of sustainable forest management.
The FSC, supported by WWF and others, is an independent, non-profit NGO that works to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests. In particular, FSC provides standard setting, trademark assurance, and accreditation services to companies and organizations interested in responsible forestry.
But CIB hasn’t stopped there. Their goal is to have all their concessions in the Republic of Congo FSC certified in the future.
“Just 2-3 years ago there were not many who believed that it would be achievable to have FSC certification of tropical rainforests in Central Africa,” Sterling said. “One can hope that other timber companies will follow CIB’s lead.”
* Constance Hegner is Communications Officer at WWF-Denmark.
• WWF visited the Republic of Congo together with Investeringsfonden for Udviklingslande (IFU) – a Danish State Fund – that has invested in CIB. WWF is helping IFU ensure that the exploration of the forest is done in a responsible way.
• The Congo Basin forests — the world's second largest rainforest after the Amazon — covers an expanse of more than 1.8 million km2, spreading across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
• The Congo Basin forests contain more than half of Africa's animal species, including most of the forest elephants left in the continent and the entire world population of lowland gorilla. They also provide food, materials and shelter to some 20 million people. Estimates indicate that the region loses 1.5 million hectares of forests each year due mainly to illegal and destructive logging. Other threats include mining, poaching and smuggling of wildlife, and the illicit bushmeat trade. If present trends continue, two-thirds of the Congo Basin forests could be lost within 50 years.
• CIB, together with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), is working to regulate and control bushmeat hunting so that endangered species are not threatened by hunting on some of the timber company's concessions. WCS, like WWF, also works with CIB on forest conservation issues.