in France, Norway

Saving rainforests by cutting down trees? Controversy over logging plans in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In an open letter, scientists have warned about the impacts that logging the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo would have on the planet’s climate. The scientists are concerned that a proposal to expand logging in DRC’s forests would damage the world’s largest tropical peatland – the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the central Congo Basin.

The letter is addressed to Norwegian environment minister, Vidar Helgesen. The proposal to log the forests comes from the French Development Agency (AFD) and is part of a so-called “Sustainable Forest Management Programme” for DRC. Under the proposal, the area of logging concessions would triple, from 10 million hectares to 30 million hectares.

The programme would be funded through the US$200 million Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). Most of the funding for CAFI comes from Norway. In a press release last week, a coalition of NGOs consisting of Rainforest Foundation UK, Greenpeace, Global Witness, Réseau Ressources Naturelles, and Groupe de Travail de Climat REDD Rénové write that,

An area of rainforest the size of Italy is at risk of being cut down by loggers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), if a Norwegian-funded project to expand industrial logging in the country is approved in Kinshasa next Tuesday (July 18).

The NGO coalition has also put out a briefing about the logging proposal, available here.

Last week, the Norwegian government put out a statement responding to Rainforest Foundation UK’s criticism of the logging proposals. But rather than addressing the concerns, Norway accuses Rainforest Foundation UK of misleading the public about “the international community’s efforts to preserve Congo’s forests”.

In its statement, the Norwegian government writes that,

Our approach must entail a response to the following: How can DRC, a poor nation abundant with natural resources, meet its growing demand for timber, food and charcoal in a sustainable manner, short of importing expensive wood from Europe? A solution must be comprehensive and include efforts against illegal logging while simultaneously promoting sustainable forestry.

But Jo Blackman, a campaigner at Global Witness, says,

“The Norwegian and French governments are deluded if they think they can save rainforests by cutting down trees. The proposed project should be rejected as it would result in vastly increased carbon emissions.”

Here is the scientists’ open letter – incidentally, REDD-Monitor disagrees with the scientists’ claim at the end of the letter that Norway is a “champion of tropical forest protection”. There is little evidence that Norway’s rainforest billions have done anything to reduce deforestation. Where REDD-Monitor and the scientists agree, is that logging is not a way of preserving either rainforests or peatlands.

Open letter to Minister Helgesen from concerned scientists:

The world’s most extensive tropical peatland complex is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Republic of Congo. The peat in the central Congo region stores approximately 30 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to three years of total global fossil fuel emissions. This recent discovery makes DRC the second most important country in the world for tropical peat carbon stocks[1].

These peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when left intact. If the Congo basin peatlands were to be destroyed, the carbon that has accumulated over 10,000 years would be released as billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the context of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and wider efforts to limit climate change, the international community should undertake efforts to support both governments in protecting these globally significant ecosystems.

The remote location of the Congo peatlands means that today they are relatively undisturbed. Nevertheless, because they have been discovered only recently, they are not protected by specific conservation plans.

Article 64 section 7 of DRC’s law prohibits the felling of trees in sensitive areas including swamp areas. This theoretically could give protection, but often in DRC forest governance is lacking and the means to monitor and enforce these laws is typically absent. The fact that DRC is thought to harbour more carbon in its peat than in all the trees in its forests, but these are not included in national conservation, development, or climate plans, attests to the limited knowledge of this globally important region. In reality, DRC lacks specific peatland protections.

This is why we, as concerned scientists, are reaching out to you. We are alarmed that the opposite of ensuring peatland protection is under consideration. The Norwegian government will decide in the coming weeks whether to fund a programme proposed by the French Development Agency (AFD), one of whose objectives is to revive and expand the industrial logging sector in the forests of DRC. The proposed programme would also involve lifting the moratorium on the allocation of new logging concessions in DRC, which, due to forest governance failures, has been in place since 2002.

We are concerned that the AFD proposal has not given adequate consideration to the potential damage of the program to DRC’s peatlands. Indeed, it does not mention them. Of particular concern is the hardwood peat swamp vegetation type, which, without protection and the enforcement of existing laws would be in real danger. This is why we believe the AFD programme, under the current circumstances, should be rejected.

The peatlands are highly sensitive to disturbance. Today, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, logging and altering drainage patterns easily tips tropical peatlands to releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as seen in Indonesia where logging peatlands has occurred extensively. In turn, the logging of Indonesian peatlands has led to serious forest fires with major human health, climate, and biodiversity impacts. These negative impacts have all been avoided, so far, in the Congo peatlands.

Norway is a world-leading champion of tropical forest protection and wise management. Your investment in programmes to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation are having positive climate impacts. We ask that Norway avoids financing projects that will have the opposite effect. We trust that, based on the evidence, Norway will make the right decision.


Professor Simon L. Lewis, University of Leeds, UK.

Professor Susan Page, University of Leicester, UK.

Dr. Lisa C Davenport, University of Florida, Gainesville, USA.

Dr Pia Parolin, University of Hamburg, Germany.

Dr Terry Sunderland, Centre for International Forestry, CIFOR, Indonesia.

Professor Sean C. Thomas, University of Toronto, Canada.

Professor Mark A. Maslin, University College London, UK.

Professor William F. Laurance, James Cook University, Australia.

Professor Andrew Balmford FRS, University of Cambridge, UK.

Professor Georgina Mace DBE FRS University College London, UK.

Dr. Orimaye Jacob Oluwafemi, Ekiti State University, Nigeria.

Dr Olivier Hardy, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

Dr Tuyeni Heita Mwampamba, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico.

Dr Simon Willcock, Bangor University, UK.

Professor Elmar Veenendaal, Wageningen University, Netherlands.

Dr Antje Ahrends – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK.

Dr. Sophie Fauset, University of Leeds, UK.

Dr Kelvin Peh, University of Southampton, UK.

Dr Tim Baker, University of Leeds, UK.

Dr Aletris Neils, Executive Director, Conservation CATalyst.

Dr. Kyle G. Dexter, University of Edinburgh, UK.

Dr Olivier Lachenaud, Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium.

Dr. David P. Edwards, University of Sheffield, UK.

Dr. R.W. Abrams, Principal Ecologist, Dru Associates, Inc.

Dr Andrew R. Marshall, University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia.

Dr. Paul J. Morris, University of Leeds, UK.

Dr Norbert Cordeiro, The Field Museum, Chicago, USA.

Professor Mathew Williams, University of Edinburgh, UK.

Dr Charlotte Wheeler, University of Edinburgh, UK.

Dr Gretchen Walters, University College London, UK.

[1] Dargie, Lewis et al. (2017) Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542, 86-90.


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