Congo Basin: An Exceptional Forest Region at Threat

Second only to the Amazon in size, the tropical forests of the Congo Basin are some of the largest in the world. Stretching from the Albertine Rift in the east to the Gulf of Guinea in the west, the forest ecosystems cover roughly 250 million hectares – more than the area of the U.S. states of California and Texas combined. The region’s rich biodiversity helps sustain a population of an estimated 60 million people, located in six countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Republic of Congo. Sustainable management of the Congo Basin forests is an international necessity, in terms of biodiversity conservation, economic benefits for local populations, and the fight against global climate change.

A critical moment for the fate of forests and climate

Deforestation rates in the Congo Basin are relatively low compared to hotspots like Brazil and Indonesia, where forests are clear-cut to make way for industrial-scale plantations and cattle ranches. However, deforestation rates in the Congo Basin are expected to increase substantially in the coming years. As in many other regions that suffer from weak forest governance, increasing demand for cheap, illegal products globally drives a sharp rise in already widespread violations of laws enacted to protect and manage forests.

Agribusiness: an increasing threat

The growing conversion of tropical forests to plantations for agricultural commodities, such as oil palm, is another strong trend in the region. Promoted by central governments, the expansion of agribusiness projects over forested areas has fostered new forms of illegalities. This model generates significant negative impacts on ecosystems and local communities, while its economic benefits for the countries’ populations are questionable. There is scant evidence that current forest governance structures and legal frameworks will be able to mitigate the damage from this increasing threat to forests.

Challenges and opportunities

Strengthening forest governance in the Congo Basin will require improvements at both the supply and demand sides of the forest products trade. Demand side polices such as the U.S. Lacey Act and the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) aim to prohibit market access for illegally sourced timber. These measures also provide incentives to improve and reform governance on the supply side. However, an absence of reliable information, complex supply chains, lack of legal precedents, and even political opposition on the demand side are among the many challenges. EIA has been working in the Congo Basin region since mid-2013. Through a mix of on-the-ground investigations, case building, capacity building, and advocacy, EIA’s work in the Congo Basin will not only support demand side measures to verify the legal origins of timber, but will also help catalyze governance improvements on the supply side in forest producer countries. Our activities stem from two main work areas: collecting and publicizing on the ground evidence about illegal activities in forests and identifying markets for illicit timber in China, Europe, and the United States; and, supporting civil society to carry out investigations and create tools, such as a regional log-marking guide, to support verification of timber origin along the supply chain. Our work on agricultural commodities is focused on identifying illegalities related to large-scale forest conversion and coordinating with local activists to confront the expansion of the palm oil industry over forests and community lands. You can also follow our work in the region (Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo) on the reform of the forest-carbon projects mechanisms here and on the CITES here.