Illegal clearance under the guise of old projects, as opacity reigns in DRC

Monday, March 12th, 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. This post details our findings from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where old agricultural projects are being exploited to clear new forest illegally.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, while no major green-field projects are known to have broken ground, our research indicates that illegal clearance of natural forest is occurring under the guise of projects to re-develop abandoned plantations. And while no contracts for new developments in forest areas have come to light, our researchers encountered a near-total lack of transparency from relevant government agencies, so it is impossible to know for sure what additional threats may be developing.

Like its neighbour Congo-Brazzaville, DRC was a signatory to the 2016 Marrakesh declaration on oil palm development in Africa, which included a promise of transparency. That same year, the DRC government also announced that it would make all large-scale agricultural contracts available to the public via the OpenLandContracts.org website. At the time of the announcement, it was estimated that there were around 20 such contracts, and it was expected that these would be uploaded by early 2017.[1] To-date, however, the only agricultural contracts uploaded to the site are a combined 10,000 hectares of land leases issued in 2009 for a maize development project in Katanga.[2] Earthsight’s own extensive inquiries yielded only a list of registered agricultural companies, but nothing about the location, size or status of any of their projects. If nothing else, the list shows that there are a number of palm oil companies active in the country about which no information exists in the public domain.

In late 2016, a decree was being drafted by the Prime Minister’s office which would make transparency in DRC’s agricultural sector a legal obligation. Though Earthsight was told by well placed sources within the government that the decree was due to be formally adopted in early 2017, we have since learned that progress with the new law has stalled. The government’s promises have come to nothing.

The absence of transparency in the sector in DRC is especially concerning given what we have heard is really happening behind this veil of secrecy.

Since 2002, authorisations have been required in DRC for clearing any area of forest greater than two hectares. Yet to-date not a single such permit has been issued by the Forestry department to an agricultural firm.[3] The answer to this apparent conundrum was supplied by a former senior official at the Ministry of Environment in DRC to whom Earthsight spoke in late 2017. He said that the industrial agriculture sector in the country was a veritable free-for-all, with companies being allowed to clear forest without required deforestation permits or impact assessments and without paying relevant taxes.

The official refrained from naming names. But Earthsight has uncovered one large company which appears to confirm the situation as he describes it.

Palm oil plantation in DR Congo, September 2017 © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace

A Burnt-Out Case: CCP in DRC

Graham Greene’s classic novel ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ has as one of its principal characters the Belgian manager of an oil palm plantation deep in the heart of the Congo. The novel’s setting was based on a real-life location near Basankusu, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The colonial-era palm plantation still exists, and its recent activities make for quite a story in their own right.

The plantation is now operated by Compagnie de Commerce et Plantation (CCP), a subsidiary of Groupe Blattner Elwyn (GBE), a powerful conglomerate in DR Congo controlled by its eponymous owner, a colourful American expatriate. As well as a series of palm and rubber plantations, GBE’s holdings include a bank, an airline and DRC’s largest logging company. Elwyn Blattner built much of his family’s Congolese business empire during the reign of the kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko, buying – at knock-down prices – companies seized from their Belgian owners by the dictator.[4][5] In September 2017, Mr Blattner was reportedly arrested by DRC authorities, for unclear charges relating to the spectacular collapse of his group’s bank, BIAC, the previous year. He was later released on bail.[6]

Blattner’s companies control an area of DRC’s forest[7] more than half the size of Switzerland. The group’s main logging company – SIFORCO – produces a quarter of all the timber harvested in the entire country.[8] In a 2015 report, the NGO Global Witness accused the company of being one of the worst offenders in a forestry sector it found was rife with illegality and abuse.[9] To give just one example, the officially-mandated Independent Observer of Forest Law Enforcement discovered that in 2013 one of SIFORCO’s concessions had cut 50% more trees than authorised – 26,000 cubic metres of illegal timber, much of it of prohibited species[10], worth millions of dollars.

GBE is one of DRC’s largest agribusiness firms, controlling more than 42,000 hectares of land for the production of palm, rubber and cocoa. Among its holdings are the CCP plantations, Lisafa and Ndeke, which cover around 6,900 hectares.[11] GBE took control of these plantations between 1987 and 1990.[12]

Over the last year, Earthsight has examined these plantations in detail, analysing satellite images and carrying out field research in partnership with a local NGO, the Group for Action to Save Man and the Environment (GASHE).[13] Though hampered by a lack of public access to documents, we uncovered evidence of numerous illegalities by the company.

Our findings indicate that CCP has illegally converted an estimated 1,860 hectares of natural forest to palm oil plantations, without the required deforestation permits. They also reveal that the company is operating without a required Social Environmental Impact Assessment or Management Plan. We also discovered that the company is in conflict with local communities in all six of theplantation areas we visited, who allege that it has failed to fulfil its obligations to them. Our findings even call into question the company’s rights over much of the land it occupies.

The conversion of natural forest was assessed using satellite imagery and confirmed by interviews with local people. Most of this conversion occurred at the Lisafa plantation, including in an area known as the Towsi forest. The company’s activities in this area have been a source of conflict with communities, who told GASHE’s investigators that the company was still clearing forest in the area as recently as 2015. Inquiries by the mandated Independent Forest Monitor had previously confirmed that no deforestation permit had been issued to the company.[14]

Part of the Towsi forest in DRC (red boundary), cleared by palm oil firm CCP during 2012-13. Satellite image interpretation and interviews with villagers indicate that this area was natural forest, not abandoned plantation

At village after village, we heard story after story of broken promises and shattered livelihoods. The Chief of Nkoy-Moke village, for example, claimed that CCP had converted 1,200 hectares of forest on their customary land between 2009 and 2011. A resident of another village affected by the same deforestation, Nkoy-monene, said that as a result of the company’s activities, “we will no longer have forest areas for our children. The scarcity of non-timber forest products is causing malnutrition in our villages.” On its website, GBE claims to be supporting local communities by building and equipping schools[15], but field research reveals that many promised schools were never finished or never equipped. Another villager said that “although the company exploits our forests, we still live in poverty. My population does not benefit from CCP. They started building a school in 2005 and it is still not finished.” GBE’s apparent failings in this regard should not come as too much of a surprise, since the group has a long history of failing to deliver on its obligations to communities in its logging concessions.[16]

In addition to the evidence of other apparent illegalities, our research also suggests that the titles giving the company rights over the land may themselves be invalid. We were able to obtain 16 land registration certificates issued to CCP in 2010, covering a total of just over 3,000 hectares, but found these had been issued by local authorities, whereas the law requires them to be issued by provincial or central government.[17] Local land officials admitted to GASHE that the licensing was improper, but said that in this case, “politics are above the law”.

Earthsight wrote to GBE to offer them an opportunity to respond to our findings, but they did not reply.

[1] Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, ‘Democratic Republic of Congo to disclose large-scale agricultural contracts’, press release published 5th Oct 2016, http://ccsi.columbia.edu/files/2016/10/Press-Release-DRC-and-CCSI-OpenLandContracts-5-Oct-2016.pdf

[2] http://www.openlandcontracts.org/, accessed and searched 20th January 2018

[3] Based on the answer to a request for information to the Direction de Gestion Forestiere by the mandated Independent Observer of Forest Law Enforcement, OGF, in January 2017

[4] The New York Times, ‘Kinshasa Journal; Getting Rich in Zaire: An American, 33, Tells How, 20th December 1989

[5] The Nation, ‘The Fight to Save Congo’s Forests’, 4th Oct 2007, https://www.thenation.com/article/fight-save-congos-forests/

[6] Congoactu. Net, ‘Affaire Elwyn Blattner “BIAC”: L’Argent A T-il Eu Raison De La Justice?’, 15th Sept 2017, https://congoactu.net/affaire-elwyn-blattner-biac-largent-a-t-raison-de-justice/

[7] GBE owns two DRC logging companies, SIFORCO and SAFBOIS. The two companies have combined logging concessions covering 2,378,000 hectares (WRI, DRC Forest Atlas, 2013)

[8] Based on DGF data for 2014, the most recent available – https://www.observatoire-comifac.net/monitoring_system/national_indicators?year=2017&country=COD&step=3

[9] Reuters, ‘Logging companies plundering Congo’s rainforest: report’, 3rd June 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-congodemocratic-environment/logging-companies-plundering-congos-rainforest-report-idUSKBN0OJ00E20150603?feedType=RSS&feedName=environmentNews

[10] OGF, Rapport de Mission de Terrain No.2, April 2014, http://ogfrdc.cd/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Rapport-de-Mission-002-OIFLEG-OGF.pdf . The findings relate to the concession officially issued to SEDAF, but found by the Observer to have been illegally sold to SIFORCO in 2012.

[11] Data collated from information on the GBE website, http://www.gbedrc.com. Visited 15-1-2017

[12] Based on information provided in interviews in the field with CCP employees, 2017

[13] In French, Groupe d’action pour sauver l’homme et son environnement (GASHE)

[14] Based on the answer to request for information to the Direction de Gestion Forestiere by the mandated Independent Observer of Forest Law Enforcement, OGF, in January 2017

[15] http://www.gbedrc.com/actions.php?lang=en

[16] See, for example, the allegations regarding GBE’s logging firm SAFBOIS in 2007 in The Nation, ‘The Fight to Save Congo’s Forests’, 4th Oct 2007, https://www.thenation.com/article/fight-save-congos-forests/

[17] The 1973 Land Act