The best opportunity to secure a sustainable future for the rainforest and forest communities

By the time DRC’s post-civil war transitional government had been established in 2003, at least 40 million hectares of the country’s rainforests had been handed out to logging companies. Some of these were cancelled, but another 15 million hectares of new logging permits were then issued to dozens of companies and speculators in the years to 2006, all in contravention of an official moratorium on the issuing of new logging titles. Remarkably, the handing out of up to half of the country’s entire high forest had been done in the absence of any form of forest spatial plan, and through mostly opaque allocation processes. The location of many of them was only known through hand-drawn maps, roughly coloured with pencil. In addition, there exists a patchwork of around 15 million hectares of protected areas, most dating back to colonial times and early independence.

In practice, the majority of the country’s forests remain much as they have done for hundreds if not thousands of years: not officially designated or allocated for any specific purpose, but extensively occupied by both farming (Bantu) and indigenous hunter-gatherer (‘Pygmy’) peoples, who eke out a subsistence living from the forest. The State claims ownership over all forest land, so can arbitrarily allocate areas for logging, palm oil plantations or other uses, regardless of whether there are forest-dependent people already there. The outcome of this absence of geospatial planning in DRC’s forests is likely to be the unnecessary destruction of highly valuable forest, inefficient conservation programmes and widespread conflict between different forest users. What is needed is a national forest zoning plan, which would set out clearly which areas of the forest are best used for which purposes.

However, the zoning process itself holds significant risks, depending on how it is done. Such previous exercises, for example in Cameroon, have relied heavily on the use of satellite images and ‘top down’ designation of large areas of rich and intact forests for industrial logging or national parks. The long held but ‘invisible’ customary rights of local communities have largely been ignored. The potential for innovative means of conserving the forest, such as through sustainable community forestry, has been much reduced by squeezing it into impractically small areas. Such a process in the DRC could result in tens of millions of hectares being zoned for ‘production’ and eventually allocated to industrial logging companies. The Rainforest Foundation’s programme in DRC, which works with members of the local Natural Resources Network, assists forest communities in mapping their local environment. It has shown not only how extensive local peoples’ traditional claims over the forest are, but also that it is possible to map this on the ground accurately, quickly and inexpensively (www.MappingForRights.org). The valuable information generated by such efforts can and should be built into the forest zoning process. National plans and maps for DRC’s forests should be built from the bottom up, thus recognising existing claims and livelihoods, and seeking carefully to reconcile these with other potential users. If this is not done, the forest zoning process in DRC could miss the biggest single opportunity available – anywhere on the planet – to secure a truly sustainable future for both rainforest and the people who live in it.

Simon Counsell (adapted from Greenpeace newsletter Forest Echoes – March, 2014).