The Independent Evaluation Group review of the World Bank’s forestry programme – what implications for the Congo Basin?

In February 2013, the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) published a major review of the Bank’s performance and strategy on forests. The evaluation was based on a strategy and portfolio review, “extensive interviews” and included desk and field-based case studies in numerous countries, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It assessed the impact of a sample of the 289 forest sector-related projects (with a value totalling $2.6 billion) that the Bank had funded between July 2002 (when the Bank had adopted its new Forest Strategy) and June 2012.

A number of the key findings of the report have great resonance with the concerns that have been expressed by many about the general direction of travel of forest policies in the Congo Basin, and in particular about some aspects of the World Bank’s role. The recommendations of the IEG –largely and disappointingly dismissed by Bank management – could, if pursued thoughtfully, have major and positive implications for how forest land mapping, zoning and allocation is conducted.

The review considers in depth the three different approaches to forest policy that constitute the vast bulk of how forest land in the Congo Basin is actually managed: strictly protected areas, industrial timber concessions, and community or ‘participatory’ forest management.

Concerning protected areas, the IEG points out that “Poverty can be exacerbated by limiting or restricting communities access to forests through the creation or expansion of a park or a protected area if due consideration is not paid to livelihoods.” In the Congo Basin, conflict between strictly protected areas and local communities is ubiquitous, with local customary land or resources claims and usage rights having largely been ignored at the time the parks were established. Restrictive regimes preventing, for example, hunting and fishing, have subsequently been enforced through often heavily armed para-military forces, bringing fear and resentment to communities. One 2003 study (which has been challenged) found in a sample of 12 protected areas in the Congo Basin that over 50,000 people had been evicted or had their lands expropriated.

Whilst such tactics have created an opposition to forest conservation within large sections of the rural population, it has probably also been somewhat self-defeating in conservation terms: there is some evidence that the eviction of local people and the breaking down of traditional hunting and land stewardship regimes can create a ‘vacuum’ into which large-scale commercial bush meat and ivory hunters, illegal loggers and other intruders are drawn. The termination of the international funding (including from the World Bank) on which such large-scale protected areas schemes invariably depend can see the armed ‘eco-guards’ quickly convert from game-keepers to poachers.

The IEG report notes that, in general, whilst three-quarters of the forest protected areas schemes that the Bank had funded contained a local ‘livelihoods’ element, only about 6% of these programmes actually achieved their aims. The IEG recommends that the Bank’s lending for protected areas in the future should include “assisting with expanded tenure and resource security…assess the welfare and livelihoods of persons living in and around a protected area system…include  an assessment of land ownership and use claims, including but not limited to customary and traditional land claims”.

These are all useful suggestions. They could all be helped by ensuring that proper participatory mapping is undertaken around any protected areas the Bank is supporting, and the resulting information used to adapt park management plans. Some protected areas projects in the Congo Basin region (such as the Mbaéré-Bodingué National Park in CAR) have already started to do so, bringing improved relations between the park authorities and local communities.

By far the most significant form of forest land use in the Congo Basin is industrial logging. The reintroduction of support for logging into the Bank’s forest strategy in 2002 was highly controversial, and opposed by a vast majority of non-governmental organisations. The IEG report says, positively, that Bank-supported “timber concession reforms in tropical moist forest countries has helped to advance the rule of law, increase transparency and accountability…and put environmental standards in place”. However, the report also points out that “policy advice and projects that have supported the reform of industrial timber concession regimes have usually neglected or underestimated the non-timber values and uses of the forests, with respect to the livelihoods of forest-dependent people, their traditional claims, sociocultural values, and overall sense of security.” The report also notes that in Central and West Africa, “Evidence is lacking that…reforms in countries with weak governance has led to sustainable and inclusive economic development.”

These findings very much echo the findings of the World Bank Inspection Panel in its 2006 investigation into the Bank’s involvement in the forest sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  That report caused something of a pause and reflection by the Bank, but by then it had already been pursuing pro-industrial logging strategies in several countries in the region for more than 15 years, with Cameroon mostly serving as the ‘test-bed’ for Bank interventions.  This strategy involved the partitioning of the forest into several main categories, the largest (and best) of which would eventually be allocated for large logging concessions, the regularisation of the forestry legislation and formalisation of the ‘forest management areas’ (logging concessions), and certain tweaks to how the concessions were allocated to specific companies. The aim of all this was to maximise the national economic development benefits flowing from the timber industry.

But what the Bank failed to recognised then – and, according to the IEG report has continued to disregard since – is how the logging concession system itself can create vast, self-perpetuating, ‘reservoirs of corruption’ and poor forest governance.   Forest concessions – usually in remote, politically marginal areas, with poor, uninformed and disempowered inhabitants – are potentially highly lucrative and disposable assets. They can be critically important in high-level ‘patron-client relationships’, allowing heads of state and senior ministers to ensure that political allies or challengers, family members, business cronies and military leaders can quickly be rewarded or bought off with resources that (compared to, say, mines, oil, or farm land) require little capital investment, labour or expertise to exploit. Given this, and despite subsequent attempts to install, for example, independent forest monitoring, logging concessions can essentially become ungovernable. Forestry ministries become dominated by administration of the concessions.

For all these reasons, and despite often occupying the majority of national territory, the logging concession system in the Congo Basin has consistently failed to deliver the expected economic benefits. As the IEG report hints, the wider costs of the logging system – loss or damage to local forest-derived subsistence livelihoods and non-timber forest products, damage to environmental services, compromised health conditions amongst forest communities and logging workers, and the inexorable spread of corruption – have always been disregarded in estimates of the net national economic benefit.

Whilst the Bank points to the ‘success’ in African loggers obtaining FSC certification, the certified area has barely expanded in recent years, whilst many certificates have had to be withdrawn, and others have been challenged. In reality, not a single concession in the Congo Basin has proven to be truly sustainable over more than a single ‘rotation’ period for the main commercial timber species.

Most damagingly, the geographical forest zoning plan which necessarily accompanies the industrialisation of forests consigns vast areas of territory to the control of a few concessionaires. It has typically squeezed local communities into self-fulfillingly unsustainable small areas of marginal forest.

The IEG’s key recommendation concerning Bank support for industrial logging is thus appropriate. The Bank should, says the IEG, “Undertake and disclose a comprehensive review of the economic, environmental and social outcomes associated with World Bank support for industrial timber concession reforms in tropical moist forest countries with weak governance”. Included in such a review should be the long-term economic and societal costs of the forest zoning systems in which the Bank has been involved – and should consider what alternative approaches could be pursued in the future.

Finally, the IEG report shows clear insights into the potential and opportunities for community-based forestry. It notes that “Participatory Forest Management, when implemented effectively, has delivered livelihood enhancing benefits as well as positive environmental outcomes. But its potential is often hampered by the failure to devolve true authority to communities and by regulatory environments that often discriminate against small producers”. Nowhere is this more true than in the Congo Basin, where a mere 0.3% of the forest estate (almost all of it in Cameroon) is formally controlled by communities  – and even then on tenuous terms.

Again, even where forestry legislation allows for the designation of community forests (such as in Cameroon), the official geographical zoning plan has heavily circumscribed the space in which such participatory forestry can take place. In some countries – such as in the Republic of Congo – the legal possibility for community forestry does not even exist. In others – DR Congo and CAR – draft legislation has been developed but not yet been adopted – and there still remain questions as to where such forestry might be allowed. The Bank can and should use its influence and financial support to overcome such obstacles. As the IEG notes, the Bank should Expand support for participatory forest management with help to level the playing field for community based forest enterprises by working with clients to improve regulations and procedures and integrate small scale informal forestry activities”.

Simon Counsell