Deforestation threatens local populations in Republic of Congo’s Sangha

Deforestation threatens local populations in Republic of Congo’s Sangha

  • Between May 2021 and November 2022, more than 200,000 deforestation alerts were recorded around Ouesso, in the northwestern Republic of the Congo.
  • Logging has drastically impacted the country’s forest cover.
  • In 2016, the Congolese authorities awarded 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of logging concessions to businesses, the majority of which had broken environmental and social standards.
  • More recently, mining by Chinese companies (the land in north-west Congo is rich in iron and gold) has accelerated the destruction of ecosystems.

Between May 2021 and November 2022, more than 200,000 deforestation alerts covering a total of 2,700 hectares (6,670 acres) were recorded around Ouesso, the administrative seat of Sangha province, in the northwestern Republic of Congo, according to data from the online surveillance platform Global Forest Watch. Several observers say the tree cover loss is the result of mining activity in the area, but this has not been confirmed.

“[If] no thorough study is carried out, it would be difficult to say if this decline of the forest in Sangha is linked to the activities of local communities who still practice slash-and-burn farming to meet their agricultural needs, or if it is linked to logging, large-scale agro-industrial activities or even mining,” Nina Kiyindou Yombo, head of the program for natural resources and the rights of forest communities at the Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme (OCDH, the Congolese Human Rights Observatory), said in a telephone interview with Mongabay in November.

In the past two years, deforestation extending over 2.73 Kha has been detected around Ouesso, the capital of the Sangha Region. Image de Marian Massala.
Map showing loss of forest cover near Ouesso, Republic of Congo 2016-2023. Map: Mongabay based on data from Global Forest Watch.
Map showing loss of forest cover near Ouesso, Republic of Congo 2016-2023. Map: Mongabay based on data from Global Forest Watch.

Since the turn of the century, Ouesso has lost more than 50,000 ha (123,550 acres) of primary rainforests, equivalent to around 60% of its tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

The forests in the Sangha region include many trees of high commercial value, like sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum), sipo (Entandrophragma utile), wenge (Milletia laurentii) and padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii). Non-timber forest products such as asparagus and Gnetum africanum (called koko in the Congolese language Lingala), are also harvested, mainly for sale and consumption locally.

“It is also a very rich area for animals,” Marian Massala, an independent journalist based in Brazzaville, told Mongabay over email. “There are fully protected species such as western gorillas [Gorilla gorilla gorilla], giant pangolins, parrots and elephants. There are also three national parks there, namely Nouabalé-Ndoki (Sangha-Likouala), Odzala-Kokoua (western Sangha-Cuvette) and the Ntokou-Pikounda park (Sangha-Cuvette).”

The region is also home to Bagombé, Benzélé and Baka Indigenous communities. These groups are traditionally nomadic, relying on the forest for hunting and gathering. They are often victims of discrimination, a local civil society member told Mongabay, and the growing degradation of the forest threatens their survival.

The source, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid hostile attention, said that mining for gold, iron and other minerals by Chinese companies strips away soil and vegetation, causing unprecedented destruction of natural ecosystems around the area’s mineral deposits. Storage sites for mining waste are responsible for further pollution.

Logging road in the forest near Ouesso, Republic of Congo. Image by Marian Massala.
It’s difficult to determine if recent forest loss in the Sangha is linked logging, large-scale agro-industrial activities, mining, or farming by local communities. Image by Marian Massala.

Harvesting timber also harms the capacity of forests to maintain their natural balance and can lead to the collapse of forest resources. The protective mechanisms currently in place are insufficient, Massala said. “The majority of companies based in the region, such as SIFCO [la Société Industrielle et Forestière du Congo] flout their most basic rights. They do not all have [forest] management plans. Only Congolaise Industrielle des Bois, part of the Olam Group, strives to conform to international standards, respects a reforestation policy and works to protect sacred sites and vital resources for local communities.”

In addition, according to a report on the situation of Indigenous populations in Sangha by the OCDH, the legal framework needs to be strengthened and the customary laws of local communities should be formally recognized in Congo’s land laws.

In many cases, the government is not benefiting from companies’ destruction of the country’s forests. In 2016, Mongabay published an article on the Congolese authorities’ award of 2 million ha (4.9 million acres) of logging concessions to businesses, the majority of which had irregular legal backgrounds including environmental and social violations.

These concession agreements were concluded at a time when President Denis Sassou Nguessou, in power for more than three decades, had just revised the Constitution in order to seek an additional mandate. This raised suspicions of corruption by the ruling class as well as connections between forest rangers and the leaders of forestry companies, leading to less-than-rigorous collection of taxes and fines.

“Forestry governance in the country remains appalling. The forests have always played a crucial role in the predation and, indirectly, the repression on which the regime’s survival depends. For me, the neo-feudal system of the forestry sector is only a growth of the more general governance implemented by the ruling clan,” Arnaud Labrousse, an independent researcher, said in an interview with Mongabay.

Republic of Congo awards two million hectares of timber concessions


Banner image: Children at Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of Congo. Image by Pieter Henket via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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