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  • Gloria Zhang

The Congo Rainforest – the solution or aggravation to climate change?

Stockholm - Sweden

The Congo Basin, known by its titles of “the earth’s African lung” and “the world’s largest natural gene bank”, has now been conferred a new title: the last line of defense against climate change.

Located in Central Africa, spanning nine countries and 180 million hectares of land, the Congo Basin holds the world’s second-largest rainforest, the Congo Rainforest. These rich tropical rainforests and swamps are estimated to have a storing power of around 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. In addition, the rich water vapor created from various vegetation spans as far as the Sahel region and the Ethiopian plateau, providing water for more than 300 million African farmers. The vital role of the rainforest has been gaining more focus. The COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference held earlier this month listed the issue of forest protection as one of the top priorities. Nearly a hundred national leaders passed the "Glasgow Declaration", promising to stop and reverse deforestation and land degradation within ten years, and invest $19billion to protect and restore forests. Among these, a $1billion plan backed by the EU and UK was placed directly toward the protection of the rainforest to help alleviate land and forest degradation.

The Congo Rainforest, the world’s second largest rainforest, the most important contributor in regulating global climate, and now the “last defense against climate change”

However, the ongoing situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where approximately 60% of the rainforest is located, has brought great concerns over whether this plan will further exacerbate the climate and biodiversity crisis. In July, the government of the DRC announced its decision to lift the decade-old timber logging ban. The ban was originally intended to better combat deforestation in the logging industry. And the opening up will enable the government to sell legal logging contracts to overseas companies. The ban was introduced by the DRC government in 2002 to combat the rampant illegal logging but received inefficiently little effect. In addition, research by Greenpeace in 2007 also confirmed that the Central African natural resource extraction industry (logging, mining, etc.) did not help reduce poverty or promote community development, but instead contributed to systemic corruption. Such a situation has yet continued in the following two decades: the industry has colluded with government officials and obtained dozens of logging concessions.

The lift of timber logging ban in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is concerned to have a worsening effect on the already rampant illegal logging activities.

The most recent series of scandals occurred in 2020. Greenpeace and a local civil organization revealed that Claude Nyamugabo, the then Minister of Environment, had illegally granted logging permits of nearly three million hectares. His successor, Eve Bazaiba, serves also as the country’s vice prime minister, not only remains silent toward this illegality but also announces a lift on the industrial logging concessions. Moreover, it is feared by environmentalists that the conditions for the proposed financial support from the EU and UK are not simply the removal of logging privileges and the protection of rainforests. On the contrary, this decision is likely to become a new and profitable highway for foreign companies to exploit the rainforest in the future.

The more ironic reality is that the EU is considered the second-largest timber market in terms of export value in the DRC. Although the EU has placed an import ban on illegal timber, some parts of Europe are still obsessed with turning illegal timber into consumer goods through the circulation and processing of third countries.

Claude Nyamugabo, the then Minister of Environment, had illegally granted logging permits of nearly three million hectares to two Chinese firms and a Congolese cleaning company. “Mukula”, a type of rosewood in great demand in the Chinese market.

Such a bitterly disappointing act is not uncommon. The manufacturers from developed countries offshoring pollution to the developing countries, the illegal trash export to Africa, and the exploitation of foreign workers have all exposed the hypocrisy behind them. However, besides finding the stakeholders to take the blame, the more important take is to re-examine the long-existing dominant social paradigm that places us humans superior to all other species. One has to question: Are we doing these so-called green actions to protect the environment or to protect our own existence?

Are we doing these so-called green actions to protect the environment or to protect our own existence?

However, despite the strong theoretical arguments to challenge the dominant social paradigm, there has never been a solid approach to how to transform to an environmental paradigm. Besides, the bitter heavy constraints such as poverty, inequality, social upheaval, along with the still worsening COVID-19 pandemic are already burdening the world. To be able to commit to such environmental protection under this heavy load of crisis is far beyond reach for many developing countries. As the President of DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, delivered a speech fighting deforestation of the Congo basin during the COP26, the logging permits are still continuing in his country, with only the “dubious” contracts being suspended. And this removal of the logging ban is clearly in contradiction with its commitment to "Reduce the DRC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2030 and restore forest coverage to 63.5%." This self-contradicting farce of the Congo Rainforest is a wake-up call for all of us and provokes the real problem behind the always meager success of environmental protection. Whether the acts upon the Congo Rainforest are leading to a successful path in combating climate change or aggravation to it remains a daunting open-ended question for all of us.

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