COMMENT: To prevent a repeat in the Congo Basin of the disaster seen elsewhere, urgent action is needed. The key lies with the region’s governments, and the international donors who support them.

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

In March 2018 Earthsight, the investigative non-profit behind Illegal Deforestation Monitor, released The Coming Storm, a report exposing the secrecy and collusion in industrial agriculture which are threatening the Congo Basin’s forests. In the following extract, the report’s authors discuss the implications of its findings.

Our findings paint a worrying picture for the future.

Earthsight’s confidential industry sources have confirmed to us that given current commodity prices, developing new plantations in ‘frontier’ areas like Africa is a high-risk, low-return business attracting few heavyweight investors. Those companies still trying to engage are generally new entrants struggling to find a niche.

Various explanations have been mooted by analysts for the lower prices seen in recent years. What nearly all of them agree on, however, is that it is surely only a matter of time before they start to rise. When they do, the boom will be back on.

The Congo Basin remains unprepared to handle the consequences. Local communities and civil society groups fighting destructive and illegal developments have had some notable successes. According to Atama’s CEO for example, the widely publicised allegations by NGOs about illegal activities were what led its main financial backer to pull out, slowing the development of the giant plantation to a crawl.[1] The high-profile, brave campaigning regarding SGSOC’s plantation in Cameroon may not have killed the project, but has helped slow it and reduce its size.

But those fighting these plantations are fighting an uphill battle, hamstrung by a lack of transparency. In the few instances where governments have supplied information or taken enforcement action, it has commonly been driven by the Forestry ministries, prompted in turn by longstanding support for action on illegal logging and timber, especially from the European Union. The powerful agriculture ministries have remained a total black box, and the international donors working with them have made little observable effort to crack it open. The international community has obtained high-level promises from governments in the region to protect forests and forest people from the ravages of plantation development, and to be transparent. But they are failing to keep those promises, and are not being held to them. The donor money continues to flow.

If governments aren’t going to help, might companies come to the rescue? There have been a spate of promises in recent years by large producers and consumers of forest-risk commodities like palm oil to avoid deforestation or abuses against people. But these cannot be relied on to protect the Congo Basin. Most of the companies already active in the region are not signatories to such pledges, and have little obvious motivation to join up. They intend to sell their products within the region or in emerging markets. Both Greenfil in Cameroon and Palme d’Or in CAR are being developed by firms which already have their own downstream factories making products like soap for domestic use. Even where the companies involved have made such promises, it is hard to hold them to account given the absence of meaningful transparency. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that some will deliberately hide their involvement.

Our research reveals that the same ingredients which fuelled the deforestation disaster in Indonesia are all now present. Malaysian know-how, venal logging companies looking for new opportunities, corruption, and a lack of transparency or rule of law. All it would take to ignite a rapid acceleration of the destruction is a modest increase in the price of rubber or palm oil.

As it stands, when the boom begins again, local civil society actors will be overwhelmed. There will be little to prevent a repeat of the disaster that befell other tropical forest regions. Right now, we are in the eye of the storm. There is a brief window of opportunity to prepare before the hurricane winds return. But time is running out.

[1] Ministry of Forest Economy (MEFDD) website, ‘Agro-industrie : le gouvernement de la république renouvelle son soutien à la Société Atama Plantation’, 5th October 2017, http://www.mefdd.cg/actualites/actualite/article/agro-industrie-le-gouvernement-de-la-republique-renouvelle-son-soutien-a-la-societe-atama-plan/  (accessed 23rd Jan 2018)