The Congo Basin Profile

Commercial Agriculture as a Driver of Deforestation

The Congo Basin has a much lower rate of deforestation than the Amazon Basin or the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. This is mainly due to the fact that large-scale industrial agricultural development has been much more limited to date in this region than elsewhere in the tropics. However, the last few years have seen the beginning of a boom in industrial oil palm development, and this threatens to dramatically increase deforestation rates. Three large new oil palm plantation developments first broke ground in Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo in 2012; all are converting natural forest (Rainforest Foundation UK 2013a). If developed to their full original intended extent over the planned timescale, these three projects alone were projected to increase the deforestation rate in each country by between 12 and 140 percent (Rainforest Foundation UK 2013b). Many other large oil palm developments in the Congo Basin have been announced or are in the pipeline, especially in Cameroon. A number of large new rubber plantations are also now being developed in forested areas. As a result of these new developments, industrial agro-conversion may already have overtaken other causes to become the largest driver of deforestation in the Congo Basin.

Illegalities in Conversion

Though large-scale agro-conversion in the Congo Basin has barely begun, there are already numerous documented illegalities involving both licensing and operations. Of the three largest new oil palm plantations that have started operations so far in the Congo Basin, two have been found by government inspections to be clearing illegally. This is despite the fact that neither plantation has yet cleared more than a small portion of the forest that they plan to convert.

In Cameroon, the Herakles oil palm plantation in the southwest of the country has been “dogged by allegations of illegality from the very start” (Rainforest Foundation UK 2013a). Local courts, forest department inspectors and an independent observer have all documented breaches of regulations, while NGOs also claim that the license itself was illegally issued (see Case Study below).

The largest forest conversion project in the Congo Basin is the oil palm concession issued to Malaysian company Atama Plantation in the Republic of Congo. The agreement covers an area of 470,000 ha, of which at least 180,000 ha is expected to be planted. The area is almost entirely made up of primary rainforest, home to numerous endangered species, including chimpanzees, gorillas, and forest elephants (ibid.).

In October 2012, an inspection by the provincial forestry office of forest clearance in the first 5,000 ha zone of the concession uncovered numerous breaches of regulations. More than 350 trees had been cut but not recorded in official felling reports. Records had been illegally altered, and there was evidence that illegal logs are possibly being laundered into supply chains by repeated use of the same log numbers. The inspection team concluded that Atama was in breach of its forest clearance license and issued an official infraction notice (DDEFS 2012). Two months later, a joint investigation by the forest service and the official Independent Observer of Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (OI-FLEG) uncovered further illegalities. The Observer found that Atama had illegally cleared forests for roads for a distance of more than 2 km outside the boundaries of the licensed area, and had also sub-contracted a company to carry out timber harvesting that did not have the proper registration. The Observer could also find no evidence of any Environmental Impact Assessment having been completed for the Atama oil palm plantation project, as required by law. The Observer recommended that the operations should be suspended and that the government should prosecute the company for breach of its license (ibid.). No such action was taken by the government, but Atama’s massive development has nevertheless stalled. In late 2015, the plantation site had been largely abandoned, though significant logging activity was observed (Mongabay 2016), Government officials were due to meet in February 2016 to discuss the future of the project (ibid.), but it is not clear what if anything was decided.

Thus far, the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen less attention from agribusiness than other countries in the Congo Basin, and those projects which do exist are at a very early stage, but the two most advanced projects have nevertheless already seen serious question marks raised over legality. A study by the Forest Peoples Programme of a new ‘greenfield’ 10,000 ha concession contract issued to Congo Oil & Derivatives SARL in Muanda territory concluded that “it is in blatant violation of the Forest Code.” Among other things, the concession is located within two Forest Reserves, which are only supposed to be used for non-commercial purposes; it was issued for 40 years, while the law only allows for terms of 25 years; there is no management plan or agreement with local communities; and the researchers could also find no evidence of any EIA having been conducted (Forest Peoples Programme 2013). Another oil palm company operating in DRC which has been accused of illegalities is Canadian company Feronia, which in 2009 acquired control of more than 100,000 hectares of land originally leased for oil palm development a century earlier. Feronia’s developments to-date have focused on re-planting areas of old palms, though there are substantial areas of natural forest within the leased area. Question marks have been raised by NGOs about the validity of the original leases Feronia claim to have inherited, and about whether it is legal for Feronia to control land in DRC, given the Agriculture Law enacted in 2012 requiring all companies attributed land to be majority owned by domestic investors. Communities also claim that their legal rights were ignored during negotiation of a new concession agreement covering part of the area in 2012 (GRAIN & RIAO-RDC 2015).

CASE STUDY: Herakles Oil Palm Plantation, Cameroon


In 2009, the Cameroonian government issued a lease for an oil palm plantation covering 73,000 ha in the southwest of the country. The lease was issued to Sustainable Oils Cameroon (SGSOC), now owned by US company Herakles Farms. Almost the entire site is forested, and it is surrounded by a number of important protected areas, including globally significant Korup National Park. Surveys have confirmed that the area is home to populations of chimpanzees and forest elephants, among many other threatened species (Waltert 2013). Herakles plans to plant 60,000 ha of oil palm over a period of four years, and broke ground in 2011. Evidence of a whole range of breaches of regulations in the licensing and operation of the Herakles plantation has come to light in the years since.

In February 2012, a local court found that the company began clear-felling forest before receiving its environmental permit. A forestry department inspection in April 2012 found that the company had breached regulations, and this was confirmed in a follow-up visit alongside the official Independent Observer of Forest Law Enforcement and Governance in May 2012, which found that the company had cleared forest which had not yet been excised from the Permanent Forest Estate, and resulted in the issuance of a “notification primitive” to pay $48,000 in fines and damages. In addition, local nongovernmental organization Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement (CED) claims that the lease agreement itself is in breach of the law, since it did not obtain the required Presidential approval and exceeds the maximum of five years allowed (Rainforest Foundation UK 2013a). Herakles operations were briefly suspended by the Cameroonian government in May 2013, yet Greenpeace has documented log markings which suggest that operations continued illegally during the suspension (Greenpeace 2013). Greenpeace also claims to have evidence which suggests that Herakles’ employees may have used bribery to win support for its project (Greenpeace/Oakland Institute 2013a). In November 2013, the Cameroonian government issued a provisional land lease to Herakles for a reduced area of 20,000 ha; NGOs alleged that this confirmed that the plantation had previously been operating without all necessary permits (Greenpeace/Oakland Institute 2013b).

In January 2014, Cameroon’s Minister of Forests issued a logging permit to a company called Uniprovince (controlled by Herakles via SGSOC) for 2,500 ha of land within the Herakles concession. Greenpeace has alleged that the issuance of the permit was in “flagrant violation” of Cameroon’s forestry legislation, becuase it was not awarded by competitive public auction as required. During early 2014, Uniprovince is alleged to have used this license as a cover to transport large volumes of timber that were felled illegally between 2010 and 2013 by SGSOC, prior to the company’s land lease being finalized. Greenpeace field investigations showed that these old logs were being “laundered,” with log markings being changed. (Greenpeace 2014).


Conversion Timber Production

Because none of the new large-scale agricultural and timber plantations being developed in the Congo Basin have yet reached maturity, they are not yet producing or exporting products like rubber or palm oil. However, some of these projects are already producing and exporting substantial quantities of conversion timber, from the natural forests which they are clearing. The proportion of tropical timber production in the region originating from conversion is set to rise dramatically in the next few years as a result.

Herakles’ twenty thousand hectares of tropical forest in Cameroon were initially expected to be felled at the project site over a period of just four years (Rainforest Foundation UK 2013a); assuming a return of around 90 m3 /ha of saleable timber from this logged but still dense forest, this would imply a possible total production of 1.8 million m3, compared with annual selective harvesting of under 2 million m3 in the rest of the country. While the Herakles development has not progressed as rapidly as intended and conversion timber production has been much more modest, other new palm oil and rubber projects in densely forested areas have also broken ground in recent years and must be producing large timber volumes, including the Sud Hevea Cameroon rubber and oil palm project bordering the Dja Faunal Reserve.

In Republic of Congo, when an official inspection team visited the first area of conversion by Atama in October 2012, it found the company had cleared around 120 ha and produced more than 15,000 m3 of logs (125 m3 /ha) (DDEFS 2012). At that rate, the plantation could potentially have produced a total of more than 22 million m3 of tropical conversion timber—almost 15 times the country’s current annual harvest from selective logging. Though the project never achieved the planned rate of conversion and has since stalled, maps of Republic of Congo from the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch show additional new oil palm plantation licenses in forest areas, which if realized could increase conversion timber production by a similar margin.


Rainforest Foundation UK. 2013a. “Seeds of Destruction: Expansion of Industrial Oil Palm in the Congo Basin: Potential Impacts on Forests and People.” Rainforest Foundation UK, London.

Rainforest Foundation UK. 2013b. “La forêt tropicale du bassin du Congo menacée par le développement de l’huile de palme.” Rainforest Foundation UK Press Release.

DDEFS. 2012. “Rapport de mission d’inspection de chantier Atama Plantation SARL, du 5-8 Octobre 2012, Zone 4, EpomaMambili, UFA Ngombe, Departement de La Sangha.” Direction Departementale de l’Economie Forestiere de la Sangha.

De Wasseige, Carlos, Paya de Marcken, Nicolas Bayol, François Hiol Hiol, Philippe Mayaux,Baudouin Desclée, Robert Nasi, Alain Billand, Pierre Defourny, and Richard Eba’a Atyi, eds. 2010. “The Forests of the Congo Basin: State of the Forest 2010.” Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. doi: 10.2788/47210.

Mongabay. 2016. ‘Prospective Congo palm oil plantation wrecking prime great ape habitat’. 5 February.

Forest Peoples Programme. 2013. “Request for Further Consideration of the Situation of the Indigenous Peoples of Merauke, Papua Province, Indonesia, under the UN CERD’s Urgent Action and Early Warning Procedures.” Letter to Secretary of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 25th July.

GRAIN and RIAO-DRC. 2015. Agro-Colonialism in the Congo: European and US development finance is bankrolling a new round of colonialism in the DRC.

Waltert, Matthias. 2013. “Large Mammal and Fish Fauna Assessments in the Planned Oil Palm Concession Area of Herakles Farms in SW Cameroon.” Report to Save Wildlife Conservation Fund, Greenpeace, and WWF. Georg-August-Universität, Department of Conservation Biology, Göttingen, Germany.

Greenpeace. 2013. “Revealed: New Evidence of Illegal Logging by Herakles Farms.” Greenpeace News, September 12.

Greenpeace/Oakland Institute. 2013a. “Herakles Exposed: The Truth behind Herakles Farms False Promises in Cameroon.” Greenpeace, Amsterdam, and The Oakland Institute, Oakland, CA.

Greenpeace/Oakland Institute. 2013b. “Cameroon, Herakles Land Lease Signature is an Alarming Development.”’ Greenpeace Press Release, November 26.

Greenpeace. 2014. “Licence to Launder: How Herakles Farms’ Illegal Timber Trade Threatens Cameroon’s Forests and VPA.” Greenpeace, Amsterdam.

This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see news on the Congo Basin here.