Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Illegal logging in the Republic of Congo

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Illegal logging in the Republic of Congo By Samuel Adeyanju

A chance for change in the Congolese forests


Global forest resources are increasingly faced with massive over exploitation. One example is the rampant illegal logging activities in the Congo Basin, leading to deforestation, degradation and biodiversity loss. Since the late 1990s, the subject of illegal logging has been high up on the global forest policy agenda, given the massive deforestation and societal conflicts often associated with it, especially in tropical countries. This has spurred global policy initiatives aimed at improving law enforcement and governance in countries producing (and exporting) tropical hardwoods. One initiative is the promoting of voluntary private governance and soft law[1]. One of such efforts is the European Union's Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (EU FLEGT) Action plan which was set up in 2003 to target key regions and countries which together contain nearly 60% of the world’s forest and supply a large proportion of internationally traded timber. Specific target areas were Central Africa, Russia, Tropical South America and Southeast Asia [2] The Congo Basin forests in central Africa contain the second largest area of contiguous moist tropical forest of the world, covering 200 million hectares. It is a distinct ecosystem supporting the livelihood of 60 million people. These forests generate funds for Nation-States in the region through timber exploitation, play a major role in regulating the main global cycles (carbon, energy, water) and widely recognised as an unique reservoir of biodiversity [3]. In the Congo Basin, the wood processing rate, which was 30 percent in 1990, rose to 50 percent in 2009 and about 60 percent in 2012, with peaks of 85 to 90 percent for large-scale industrial companies[4] The Republic of Congo is one of the primary producers of high value species in the Congo Basin, providing about 20% of Okoumé (the most logged species in Central Africa), Sapelli and Ayous for both domestic and industrial markets [3]. It has a net annual deforestation rate of approximately 0.21% for the period 1990–2000 and 0.03% for the period 2000–2010[5]. Currently, all log exports from Congo should be considered at ‘high-risk’ of being illegal, with estimated levels of illegal logging within Congo being as high as 70%. An exception would be those logging concession areas that have been independently verified as legal or certified sustainable [6].

Illegal logging in perspective

Illegal logging is defined and viewed differently by various forestry stakeholder platforms, organisations, researchers and forest communities. Illegal logging has no single definition. It is not a legal term derived from treaties, statutes, or court opinions. Neither is it a technical term that professionals use in a consistent way. In a general sense, "illegal logging takes place when timber is harvested, transported, bought or sold in violation of national laws" [7]. The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) defined Illegal logging as the removal of logs in a manner that is against the provisions of relevant laws. These laws are those of a particular country: i.e. national (or sub-national) laws which are applied within the context of forest management or sustainable forest management (SFM)[8]. In addition, the NGO, European Forest Initiative (EFI), defined legal logging practices as those in which there is a right to harvest within legally-gazetted boundaries, payments exist for harvest rights and timber, timber harvesting complies with environmental and forest legislation, and third parties' legal rights concerning use and tenure are respected [9]. Notwithstanding these diverse perspectives, global efforts are being made through the introduction of instruments that promote sustainable forest management as a means to combat illegal logging and trade [4]

Historical Context

Framework for illegal logging activities

In this Wiki page, use of the word 'Congo' refers to 'Republic of Congo'. Congo, one of the countries in central Africa, has a total of 21.3 million hectares of dense forest, covering 65% of the total land area[3][5]. It is second only to the Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of tropical rainforest coverage among African countries. It is also strikingly diverse for its size—home to 597 species of birds, 166 mammals, 58 amphibians, 149 reptiles, and more than 6,000 species of plants. (Mongabay). As of 2011, the Republic of Congo has 4,085,422 inhabitants and some sources say that indigenous peoples account for 10 per cent of the total population. The indigenous peoples are known as Bakola, Tswa or Batwas, Babongo, Baaka, Mbendjeles, Mikayas, Bagombes, Babis and more[10]. Congo is one of the primary producers of high value species in the Congo Basin, providing about 20 % of Okoumé (the most logged species in Central Africa), Sapelli and Ayous for both domestic and industrial markets [3]. Congo had net annual deforestation rate of approximately 0.21% for the period 1990–2000 and 0.03% for the period 2000–2010 [5]. In 2006, the forestry sector made a 5.6% contribution to Congo’s Gross Domestic product (GDP) and in 2007, 7,424 people were direct employees in the sector[3]. Primary forests comprise 52% of the total forest area, whereas secondary forest and swamp forest cover 4% and 44% of the total forest area respectively. The prevailing forest type is humid dense forest, especially in the northern part of the country, whereas in the south there are both savannah and dense forests[11]

Framing the Problem

Framework for illegal logging activities[12]

In most West and Central Africa countries, forested lands fall into the “domanial” regime, a legacy of colonial times by which the new European power took over the former local kingdoms and acquired their political attributes including the political control of populations and their lands[13]. The concept of “Terres vacantes et sans maîtres” (empty land without a master), becoming the property of the State has been extensively used for forested lands, perceived as “empty” (or characterized by the mobility of inhabitants) and as a reservoir of timber and valuable natural products such as rubber[13]. In the Republic of the Congo, natural resources, particularly forests, are state property in accordance with the Forest Code of January 20, 2002 which made no provision for community management of forests. However, the State grants private operators the right to undertake logging activities. Almost the entire country is divided into Forest Management Units (UFA) including all land uses, designating 20.5% and 74% as areas protected in National Parks and logging concession respectively[13] [14][3]. The only existing provision for local communities is the possibility to create “community series” within the attributed industrial concessions, which allows villagers to obtain supplies of timber and to grow crops. Theoretically, the state has the basic role to define forest policy, management and preservation[13] [14]. In general, the legal framework for the land sector is riddled with gaps and inconsistencies that leave communities’ tenure rights highly vulnerable to interference by the state and third parties. Land tenure is sorely in need of comprehensive reform, particularly as pressure for land increases [15]. Customary ownership rights over the land can be registered only if the land has been developed (mise en valeur) and communities can show proof of 30 years of development. These requirements are often difficult to meet in practice. More so, the local bodies in charge of registering customary land rights are still not in place in many departments in the Republic of the Congo. The state retains the right at any time to cancel customary rights that are not registered and award the land to concessions [15]. For forest lands, the colonial administration used to consider that as the “indigenous people” were unable to prove their ownership by showing legal titles, gazetting could take place without real consultations about tenure rights that could have been opposed to the State’s claims regarding ownership[13]. For instance, Law 5 of the 2011, rights of indigenous peoples, Articles 31-42: states that indigenous people have individual and collective rights to property over land and natural resources that they have occupied or used customarily and that these rights cannot be taken away by the state. In addition, the state is mandated to facilitate the delimitation of their customary territories as customary land tenure does not need to be registered to be recognized by the state[15]. However, implementing decrees have not been passed for this law, meaning there is no institutional framework to support the recognition and enforcement of these rights. This law applies only to the 1.2% of the Congolese population defined as indigenous. Meanwhile other forest-dependent communities, such as local communities other than indigenous peoples, cannot benefit from this protection [15]. Additionally, Congo’s forest sector has serious governance problems. For instance, there is no formal process in Congo for ensuring coordination among relevant government agencies on illegality issues in the forest sector [6]. This is reflected in the assessed levels of illegal logging within Congo, which could be as high as 70%. There are two main types of illegal logging taking place in the country: ‘informal’, small-scale artisanal logging for domestic markets (estimated to represent 20% of all harvesting); and logging in breach of various regulations by large, licensed logging concessionaires[6].


The impacts of illegal logging are wide-ranging and include environmental, political, economic, cultural and social aspects.

Framework for illegal logging activities[12]


Illegal logging is naturally associated with destructive logging practices[16]. Some studies show that predatory logging, also known as conventional logging can involve twice higher damage than planned logging also known as Reduced Impact Logging (RIL)[17]. On a broader scale, illegal logging may contribute to deforestation, loss of biological diversity, water pollution, soil degradation, fires and carbon emissions[18][12]. Changes in climate variability and reduced resilience of the forest ecosystems to adapt to climate variability over time are also resultant impacts of illegal logging[12] For a few years after tropical logging, there is a high risk of fire as canopy gaps allow sunlight to reach the forest floor[19]. with ever more severe consequences for carbon stocking and biodiversity of repeat fires, potentially driving a transition from tropical wet forest to fire-dominated woodland[12]. In a study conducted by [20], illegal logging amongst other factors were identified as one of the drivers of environmental change in the Congo Basin.


The Congolese government’s response to illegal logging has been limited. Very few of the policies and regulations needed to ensure good forest governance are currently being implemented [6]. However, there have been some recent improvements especially with the establishment of an independent monitor (IM) and the development and implementation of the EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) which have been key drivers of this change. The VPA, the first in the Congo Basin, was concluded in 2009 and signed in 2010, but was not ratified until July 2012 and did not enter force until March 2013. However, implementation of the VPA has been very slow, and recent studies have shown that most logging concessions are a long way from meeting the necessary standard [6]. According to Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures perceived levels of public sector corruption in countries around the world using a score of 0-100 (where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is completely clean) the Republic of the Congo is ranked 159th out of 176 countries assessed. It has scored a corruption index of 20, meaning it has a perception of very high corruption [21]. Besides, the anti-corruption legislation existing in Congo has not been so enforced to monitor, detect and prevent corruption amongst state forest officials [6]. For instance, the total recorded licensed production in 2012 was 1.6 million cubic metres, while a further 0.4 million cubic metres of illegal artisanal production was estimated to have occurred. Yet fewer than 1,500 cubic metres were seized, or less than 0.1% of the total harvest. Even if all licensed production is assumed to be legal, the statistics shows that fewer than one in every 200 illegal logs is being seized [6]. In addition, the Congolese forest legislation provides senior forest officials with broad discretionary powers which are regularly abused in a serious manner. For instance, unlimited discretionary power exists for the forests minister to reduce the value of the largest fines levied on timber companies. The minister can also unilaterally authorize exemptions to controls on log exports, or modify contractual agreements (such as by delaying the date by which a forest management plan is required). There is also evidence that the minister has used his powers inappropriately to hand out logging concessions to his and the president’s relatives [6].


The forestry sector contributed USD 149.1 million to the economy in 2011, which is approximately 0.9% of the GDP (Global Forest Watch). The annual value of Congolese timber and timber-derived products is approximately 250 million Euros (approximately 343 million dollars) with an annual export ranging between 1 and 1.3 million m³ of timber (round log equivalent), most of it to the EU and China[22]. Most of the exports to the EU are sawn timber originating from northern Congo. The arrival of Chinese companies has created new market destinations and increased the volume of exploited timber in Congo as it mainly imports logs from the south-western part of the country. China dominates 60% of the market for Congo’s timber exports while and 25% of the timber are exported to Europe[6]. Only ten logging companies control about 90% of all licensed harvesting in Congo with about 60% of its timber production exported as logs and the rest is exported as sawn timber. The Chinese markets are seen as less sensitive markets hence illegally produced from the southern concessions are exported though Pointe Noire to China[6]. Governments in the Congo Basin losses of billions of dollars of revenue to illegal logging activities[18]. A data supplied to Chatham House over the course of two years (2011 and 2012) identified, officially recorded and reported illegal logging cases (mostly overlogging certain species, logging more than permitted volumes, and logging protected tree species) involving timber worth around €2.3 million. Meanwhile, according to data collected by the independent monitor (IM-FLEG) during the same period, the government issued fines for these offences totalling just €0.3 million, and to date only €3, 800 of these fines had been paid[6]. In addition, €6.9 million of stumpage and area taxes remained unpaid by logging companies at the end of 2011, compared with €5.7 million owed at the end of 2008 and €5.6 million at the end of 2009[6].


Since forests are sited within or around local communities, the social impacts of illegal logging will most likely be felt by them. Illegal logging contributes directly to increased poverty when indigenous people and local communities loose their resources, and indirect impact is reduction in the government revenues, which could in turn be made available for poverty reduction programs[18]. Land and resource conflicts that results in loss of resources and violence, often linked to illegal logging and other illicit activities[12]. In the republic of Congo, fines issued for illegal logging are small compared with the probable value of the illegal harvest [6]. Thus, the common wealth of the Congolese people are devalued and their access to deriving maximum benefits from their resources are limited.


Illegal logging actors do not consider preserving the trees and areas that are of cultural value to indigenous people and local communities. However, the Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), an industrial logging concessionaire in Congo has formally recognised indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional areas and resources everywhere in their concessions, and agreed to establish processes to ensure that timber harvesting will take place only after obtaining their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) [23]. CIB in collaboration with the indigenous people has mapped trees and areas of special religious or cultural significance for indigenous people to prevent damage during logging operations[23][24].

Initiatives to Combat Illegal Logging

The international community recognizes the immense value of tropical forest resources in the Congo Basin. Over the past years, many instruments have been introduced in to make the way forest industries operate in tropical forests more sustainable[4]. For instance, Congo has had a donor-funded Independent Monitor of Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (IM-FLEG) in place since 2007. Congo was the first in the Congo Basin to sign the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) with the EU in 2010, which was ratified in 2012 and is currently under implementation (Lawson, 2014). Similarly, a UN-REDD programme for Congo was approved in late 2012 in line with REDD+ forest governance-related activity. This includes a component for setting up systems to monitor ‘safeguards’, including monitoring forest governance, but there has been little progress in this regard thus far (Lawson, 2014). The Forest Code is currently being revised, partly to bring it into better alignment with the 2011 law on the rights of indigenous peoples[6]. In 2013, the Republic of the Congo together with other Congo Basin countries, timber industry representatives and civil society jointly adopted the Brazzaville Declaration to cooperatively combat illegal timber trade in the Congo Basin[4].

Layering Perspectives:

As the author of this case study, I have written from a forestry perspective. Hence, I invite scholars, students, and industry professionals from other field of study to contribute their thoughts on the case study presented.

Summary & Recommendations

The above analysis on illegal logging summarizes the nature and extent of illegal logging in the Republic of Congo, the various governmental and international efforts made thus far and overall implication of illegal logging in the Republic of Congo. The Congolese government should increase their efforts in enforcing forest laws to better prevent further exploitation of their forests by illegal loggers. Review of some its forest policies are also necessary especially those allocating unlimited powers to forest officials. Government should also establish an anti-corruption agency which focuses on to monitoring and investigating and pressing legal actions against any illegal activities within the national forestry department. In addition, forestry officials should show commitment to ensuring fines issued for illegal logging activities and taxes are all recovered within the given year. Government should designate a certain percentage of its forest lands for community forest management thereby encouraging and utilizing the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people in forest management and environmental sustainability. The republic of Congo should show more commitment to the implementation of the Brazzaville Declaration. Industrial logging companies should develop working relationships with indigenous people and local communities within or around their forest concessions. In addition, they should carry out more corporate social responsibilities within forest communities in terms of providing health care services, building schools, roads and pipe borne water, etc.


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