Tropical forest in peril
© Biosphoto/Fabre Jean-Eric/Lineair
International timber corporations benefit from the exploitation of tropical forests: tree trunks on the Kouilou River in west DRC.
The Congo Basin in Central Africa is home to one of the largest rainforests in the world, second only to the Amazon rainforest. 1.7 million square kilometres of tropical forest stretch across the equator, from Cameroon and Gabon on the west coast, through the countries of the African Great Lakes region, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, to Tanzania in East Africa. This forest is called the "green lung" of Africa because of its biodiversity and unique ecosystems. The countries in the Congo Basin play a key role in protecting it. They must therefore contribute to slowing global warming.
Sixty-six per cent of the Congo rainforest is located in the DRC. The country is rich in unique biodiversity. The forests of the DRC provide habitats for thousands of animal species and around 10,000 plant species, 3,000 of which are only found in the region. The DRC is the fifth most biodiverse country in the world, but only about eight per cent of its territory is protected.
The forests are shrinking rapidly, and large portions of valuable stocks are being destroyed daily. Between 1990 and 2010, the forest area of the DRC decreased by approximately 60,000 square kilometres.
Several issues are contributing to this destruction. Climate change has a particularly dramatic impact on the sensitive ecosystem of a tropical rainforest. Even a slight change in temperature and precipitation can disrupt the balance between flora and fauna, triggering a chain reaction.
Moreover, forest is constantly being cleared, which has caused irreparable damage. This is happening especially in places where armed conflicts are waged and valuable minerals are mined. The forests in the east of the DRC are especially at risk. That part of the country has been plagued by militia violence and displacements for over 15 years. Violent clashes continue to occur not only among various militia groups, but also against the FARDC, the country's official armed forces.
Fighting in Africa's oldest national park
The oldest national park in Central Africa, Virunga National Park, has been steadily losing forest area since 1994. After the genocide in Rwanda that year, a hundred thousand refugees fled to the slopes of the Virunga volcanic chain, the habitat of the famous mountain gorilla. Since then, the province of North Kivu has been in an almost constant state of strife. The local people have retreated into previously untouched areas in order to escape the fighting. Agriculture, fishing, collecting of fuelwood, charcoal extraction and settlements are destroying the natural environment.
Another key factor is mining of minerals such as tin, copper, coltan and gold. This business is growing – and it is often accompanied by violent conflict. Environmental and social standards are not enforced.
The Kahuzi-Biega National Park, located to the west of the city of Bukavu, is an example. It is exposed to poaching and settlement as a result of the illegal extraction of coltan and tin in the surrounding area. Kahuzi-Biega is home to rare primate species and has been placed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage in Danger. The same is true of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, located in the Ituri forest in the north of the country, where militia groups illegally mine for gold.
Armed militias use poorly-monitored forests as safe havens. For them, obtaining food through poaching and money from illegal mining has become a necessity.
Since the 1960s, the staff of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) has worked to protect the threatened refuges of endangered species. Hundreds of rangers have lost their lives in confrontations with poachers or armed militias in the past 20 years. Supporters of the ICCN include Germany's KfW Development Bank. There are not enough funds, however, to adequately manage and protect the parks.
Unfortunately, the Congolese government lacks the necessary commitment to address the problem. That is the main reason for forests not being protected. The political crisis that has engulfed the country since its independence has created lawless regions in remote provinces, particularly in the large and difficult-to-control forested areas. Political instability and weak governance make it especially challenging to protect biodiversity.
The government has passed plenty of laws to protect the tropical forest and its inhabitants. According to Article 215 of the Constitution, international environmental protection agreements take precedence over national law. Five of the DRC's seven national parks are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and other forests are protected as well. It is illegal to extract natural resources in protected areas.
The nation's legislators are considering the draft version of a new law to preserve natural habitats and establish taxes to support 13 national parks. Existing law, moreover, does not permit human activity inside the reserves and national parks, aside from limited tourism and research. The status of the reserves, however, does allow a limited number of settlements and activities.
Yet the numerous laws designed to protect the natural environment only exist on paper: they are not being enforced. Political power struggles and corruption make the situation even more precarious. Very little government funding has been earmarked to protect the forests. Due to the disastrous security situation, the hope that ecotourism will provide an additional source of income will not be fulfilled anytime soon.
The DRC has an annual national budget of approximately $ 7.5 billion for over 70 million people. It relies on international aid for over 90 % of the most basic government services in the health and education sectors.
The protection of forests and biodiversity barely figures in the national budget. With regard to its environmental policy, the DRC is extremely dependent on international donors. The government does little to raise local awareness for environmental issues. Even more serious is the fact that the DRC allows policies to be dictated by the interests of international corporations (see Box).
Experience shows that effective forest protection depends on stable governance, with authorities enforcing regulations and striving to achieve policy goals. Those in positions of responsibility must consider the protection of biodiversity and forests an important objective and shirk from endangering delicate ecosystems by permitting and promoting the extraction of natural resources. The Congolese government must obviously improve the desperate security situation and take decisive action against illegal mining, excessive logging and plundering militias.
Reconciling environmental-protection programmes with the needs of the local people represents yet another challenge. The people must become much more involved in sustainable tourism projects, income-generating activities and environmental protection programmes. That is the only way to guarantee sustainable protection for the forest and the environment.
Ephrem Balole works for the ICCN (Congolese Wildlife Authority) and is the acting park manager of Virunga National Park. Parts of the park have been under rebel control for months, so park rangers who perform their duties are actually risking their lives.
Gesine Ames works for Ökumenisches Netz Zentralafrika, a faith-based network.
Ilona Auer-Frege is the coordinator of ÖNZ. firstname.lastname@example.org