Sign on the dotted line….

Posted on February 6, 2014

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Next week marks ten years of waiting by conservationists for an area of forest in Congo to be granted protective status.

The verbal agreement made by the Congolese government on February 11th 2004 was to turn Ogooue-Leketi – a dense evergreen tropical rainforest- into a national park. The so-called promise was made after an iron ore company was granted permission to mine outside the forest’s borders. By pledging to create a “protected area” it was supposed to off set the adverse impact of mining, except the legislation to enforce this still hasn’t materialised much to the disappointment and frustration of conservationists here in Brazzaville.

Ogooue-Leketi lies in the middle west side of Congo and is the size of an English county. It’s where the forest meets the savannah of the Bateke Plateau.

Tim Rayden, the technical advisor for forestry and climate change at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) told me, “It feels like, ‘lenteur administrative,’ the slowness of the administration as they say here. I am surprised that nothing has happened in ten years because it is a hell of a long time; but I’m not surprised because of the commercial interest involved and because it is not in the government’s interest to act on this.”

One third of the area is forest cover and has already been attributed to three different Asian logging companies who are principally interested in exploiting and exporting Okoumé – a hardwood for plywood. It is a popular, versatile wood and grows widely in that forest. It is the main timber species. Rayden says that there has been an increase in exports of Okoumé from Congo in recent years. In fact there is “quite a nice correlation” between this and the conservation measures imposed in neighbouring Gabon. When the Gabonese government banned the export of un-processed logs to stimulate the domestic industry. Congo saw an increase in its export market of this particular wood.

“WCS is lobbying quite energetically to see that the government honour that commitment to create a national park regardless of the mining company doing their part or not.

“Congo is supposedly committed to stamping out illegal logging activity following a partnership with the EU. These companies may have logging concessions but they are also supposed to also have a logging management plan for the duration of that period and they don’t. During the interim period (before the planks written and approved) they get a quota, but this is much more than the sustainable off take should be.”

According to Rayden he claims it’s quite possible that the government could be making more than a profitable gain as a result of this. More exploitation means more tax revenue in the short term. But we have no way of knowing if this money is actually going into government coffers.

When I pressed him as to how much he thought it could be worth if these allegations are true he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s likely to be multi-millions. Anything up to three million dollars tax revenue year is feasible,” he said.

It’s not the first time that the government in Brazzaville has let conservationists down by dragging it’s heels and making what appears to be false promises.

In 2011 the Congolese government awarded a safari hunting permit to an organisation within an area of forest in the logging concession area of a large multi national company CIB. Apparently they did this without notifying CIB.

Rayden tells me that over the years CIB’s engagement with conservationists has been more positive and the timber they log now is FSC certified – Forest Stewardship Council.

The hunting group pledged to inject money into conserving this area but there are of course strict guidelines when it comes to permits. A ‘Cahiers des Charges’ was granted by the ministry on the grounds that the hunting group bought them some computers and a car. Yesterday I saw the official document which lists the equipment they requested. It does make for a farcical read when you consider the deal!

The hunting operation should have carried out a wildlife survey before hand to show that there were enough animals to shoot without adversely affecting wild populations – it didn’t. Instead they set eight camera traps and laid salt in front of the cameras to attract the animals creating a bias in the method to compound the hopelessly tiny sample.

On the hunting cards were buffalo, Sitatunga and Congo’s beloved Bongo (large antelope). When WCS carried out a population estimate across the whole landscape in 2011 – that’s 683km of transects they only found four samples of Bongo dung. The quota to shoot these animals is 20 per year. Bongo populations have been decimated by disease in the past and they are not common according to Rayden.

Call it coincidence but simultaneously when the permit was granted by the ministry of forests and department of wildlife and protected areas, the Bongo went from being completed protected (which means no hunting), to partially protected (run for cover!).

Rayden like most conservationists who work in the field tries to remain optimistic and positive; but he does see the situation for what is it. When I pressed him about the future of the long awaited national park he told me, “Unfortunately, I suspect things like this will continue until extractive industries have had their fill.

“It’s the age old challenge of conservation before it’s too late. Can we voluntarily give up before it becomes uneconomical for them to continue? I don’t think so.”

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