An anonymous article in the September 2011 UN-REDD newsletter paints a rosy picture of REDD-readiness in the Republic of Congo. An anonymous response, sent to REDD-Monitor yesterday, argues that the UN-REDD article ignores the on-going destruction of the Republic of Congo’s forests.
The UN-REDD article and the response illustrate an increasingly common divide in discussions about REDD in tropical countries. According to the UN, the World Bank and (usually) the government of the country concerned, REDD readiness is progressing, politicians are saying all the right things and the money can start pouring in. Meanwhile, in the forests, the logging concessions are still there as are the oil palm plantations, mines and hydropower dams. The destruction of the forests and abuse of indigenous peoples’ rights continues unabated.
This is not an argument for REDD to be abandoned, followed by a return to business as usual. Instead, it is an argument for REDD to addresses the causes of deforestation, for the simple reason that otherwise it will not succeed in reducing deforestation. Some honest reporting in future issues of the UN-REDD programme newsletter would be a small step in the right direction.
REDD in the Republic of Congo: A ‘shining example’ of commitment to REDD readiness, or just more smoke and mirrors?
According to a recent UN-REDD newsletter, there are “Encouraging Signs for the REDD+ Process in Republic of Congo”. The newsletter reports that “The Republic of Congo’s commitment to advancing REDD+ readiness activities shone through during a recent joint mission to the country by the UN-REDD Programme and Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF).”
Congo has been selected as a “priority country in Africa” for the UN-REDD/FCPF process. The article reports some of the positive findings of a recent UN-REDD/FCPF delegation to Congo’s capital, Brazzaville – mostly in terms of the level of understanding and “real interest” in REDD being noted increasingly widely in the government, beyond just the Ministry of Forest Economy and Environment headed by Henri Djombo.
Official interest is no doubt growing as the signing of the REDD readiness agreement draws closer. But what the article ignores is that, in the real world outside of Brazzaville ministry offices, Congo is busily moving fast in the opposite direction from anything that would be recognised as REDD.
The commitment to forest destruction in fact reaches right to the top of the government. For example, during 2009 and 2010, timber concessions covering nearly 600,000 hectares were awarded to a company known as ‘Christelle’, which is run by President Sassou-Nguesso’s now 26-year old daughter, Kelly Christelle. The second of these, the 357,101 hectare Mbama permit in Cuvette-Ouest, was granted six days after a delegation headed by Minister Djombo had visited the headquarters of the China Foma Group of companies in Beijing, with whom the president’s daughter had already signed an agreement to process the wood from her first concession. Respected timber market watcher, GlobalTimber.org, has rightly commented that the deal involving Christelle has shown that the Congolese government’s June 2009 ‘Voluntary Partnership Agreement’ with the European Union aimed at stamping out forest sector malpractices is a “farce”.
In December 2010, the Minister of Land Affairs, Pierre Mabiala, and the Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, Rigobert Maboundou, signed a deal with Malaysian company Atama Plantations granting rights to develop 470,000 hectares of land, both in the centre of the country and the forested north, of which about 180,000 hectares is expected to be converted to palm oil plantations. Whilst the government was quick to point out that it was within the law to sell off any land outside cities, as the State claims ownership to all such land, it did not report what measures were planned to mitigate any environmental or social impacts, including those on existing occupiers of the land.
With Congo’s forests fast running out of prime timber as a result of decades of ‘sustainable forest management’ (much of which was originally initiated by Djombo in his first term as Minister of Forests and Water from 1980-85), even flagship timber companies such as the FSC-certified Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) are starting to look at other more profitable uses of forest land. CIB, bought by Singapore-based agri-commodities company Olam in 2010, quickly announced that it was intending to ‘diversify’ production from timber to agricultural crops, including palm oil, in a move welcomed by President Sassou-Nguesso.
Following the attraction of big Asian money into the country’s ‘forest’ sector, the Congolese government’s ambitions for plantation development have swollen. In August this year, Djombo announced that he is seeking investment of $2.6 billion to create one million hectares of industrial plantations for wood and palm oil, as well as for the restocking of timber which government-authorised logging companies have sustainably exhausted from the natural forest. There have been no assurances forthcoming that any new plantations would complement the remaining natural rainforests rather than replace them.
Even the country’s direct engagement in REDD raises as many doubts as it provides reassurances. As REDD-Monitor reported recently, the country’s first private REDD deal threatens to undo years of work that have gone into trying to reconcile forest protection in the Odzala National Park with the rights of people living in and around the area.
In the limited terms of ‘REDD-Readiness’ itself, UN-REDD seems to be describing a Congolese country which few others would recognise. Whilst UN-REDD states that its delegation “was impressed by the high degree of national ownership”, and praised the “strong mobilization of civil society on REDD+”, it neglects to mention that the Republic of Congo Readiness Preparation Proposal (RPP) for the World Bank was heavily criticised by national and international NGOs for lack of consultation when it was discussed for funding by the Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s Participants Committee in June 2010.
The latest and supposedly final draft RPP (opens pdf, 3Mb), submitted to the Bank by the Congolese government in September 2011, itself raises many questions both about the progress of REDD-readiness in Congo, and also about the wider FCPF process. The ‘adoption’ by the FCPF of the draft Congo RPP document in 2010 was accompanied by the setting of seven key ‘recommendations for improvement’, amongst which was that the government should “Provide more in-depth analysis of the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, especially industrial logging”. Two drafts and 15 months later, the final RPP still includes no such analysis, but retains fictional statements such as that “Despite some shortcomings, regulation [of logging] seems well respected and keeps the samples [“timber species”] at a level compatible with the natural growth of the resource” – thus ignoring both the well documented evidence of organisations such as Resource Extraction Monitoring (formerly the official Independent Forest Monitor in Congo) as to the widespread malpractices within the sector, as well as the evidence from companies themselves that logging is in decline due to previous over-exploitation. The government’s compliance with other ‘recommendations for improvement’ in the RPP similarly seems to be questionable at best.
The World Bank’s own ‘Completeness Check’ on whether Congo’s RPP complies with all its requirements meekly points out that the new RPP includes plans for future studies to be undertaken on the real causes of deforestation, as well on other areas where the RPP appears to be lacking. Typical of the chaotic lack of agreed process and procedures within the FCPF, it is not clear what obligations Congo is under to properly deal with the Participants Committee recommendations from 2010, nor what happens in the event that the Bank’s own assessment of whether these have been complied with should be disputed, as seems likely. Equally typically, the Bank’s latest ‘Progress Fact Sheet’ for Congo indicates that, whatever the shortcomings of the ‘final’ RPP, the Bank is nevertheless progressing “with the view of signing a USD3.4 million grant to support the implementation of key activities identified in the final R-PP”.
Whatever UN-REDD and the FCPF think that a REDD process will achieve in Congo, it is clear that the current process is desperately divorced from the reality on the ground. Rather than seeing a shining example of commitment to REDD-readiness, it appears to this author that some observers’ eyes have been blinded by a merely superficial gloss of limited progress after talking to a few officials. Perhaps this is only to be expected. Anyone with the least understanding of the political economy of forestry in the Republic of Congo will know that REDD successes here are going to be desperately difficult to achieve. With unpredictable and inconsistent, but nevertheless powerful and ambitious, characters such as Henri Djombo on the scene (he is widely thought to be the most likely future challenger or successor to the Presidency of this oil-rich country), there is the capacity for much mischief and major disruption of international forest policy processes if certain interests are not satisfied. Djombo no doubt knows many inconvenient truths behind the long-running and massively expensive international support, especially from the US and the World Bank, for ‘forest conservation and sustainable management’ in his country, which donor agencies and high profile conservationists alike would probably prefer to remain lost to history and written off the accounts.
The international community will thus go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that REDD inducements and plaudits are seen to be offered to Brazzaville. But no-one should make the mistake of thinking that this reflects any real progress in protecting the Republic of Congo’s forests.
PHOTO credit: Mr. Moussoki, mongabay.com.