BOGOR, Indonesia—Think of the timber industry in tropical forests, and the image of heavy machinery reaping large swaths of trees for multinational firms may come to mind.
Yet a new study of the sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reveals that informal, small-scale sawyers serving the domestic market extract up to 13 times as much timber as industrial companies—and suggests simple, short-term measures to improve the management of this sector.
“You cannot talk about sustainable forest management if you are leaving out the 90 percent of the production that is in the informal sector,” said Guillaume Lescuyer, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and CIRAD who led the DRC research as part of a series of studies on small-scale logging in Central Africa.
In recognition of this, international negotiators preparing Voluntary Partnership Agreements between tropical countries and the European Union to ensure all EU timber imports are legal now include domestic markets in the scope of their discussions, he noted.
SURVEYS AND STATS
For a full year, CIFOR and its local partners monitored the capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern rainforest city of Kisangani as well as key roads and river ports connecting them to logging areas and to neighboring countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. By day and by night, they conducted surveys of truckloads and boatloads as well as throughput at the two trading hubs’ timber markets. They also interviewed loggers, millers and traders, cross-checked different data sources and matched them with existing statistics to paint an unprecedented picture of small-scale chainsaw logging in the DRC—complete with statistics on prices, types of products sold and tree species traded.
“There was an important knowledge gap in the DRC forest arena, which we filled with this reliable study now available to both technicians and policy makers,” Lescuyer said.
The artisanal timber industry was found to employ an estimated 25,000 people, compared with 15,000 direct jobs in the industrial sector—yet nearly all of them said they operated outside any legal framework. Some 96 percent of those supplying timber to Kinshasa had no logging permit, while only 36 percent of those in the Kisangani region had some form of license.
More artisanal sawyers and traders applied for paperwork in the east of the country, because that helped their products cross the complex network of provincial and international borders to reach regional export markets in East Africa, Lescuyer said—but it turned out that many of the permits were fake, issued by officials who pocketed the money rather than issue the correct titles, which would also have contributed to State coffers.
Of the “sundry taxes that bog down the artisanal operations … many did not exist in 2005, and most of them are illegal,” the researchers wrote.
NO REGULATIONS, PLENTY OF RISK
The DRC’s legislation and administration at large were not found to encourage small-scale timber producers to bring their business above board. “There are only a handful of pieces of legislation, but they contradict each other and are incomplete,” Lescuyer said. It remains unclear which level of governance is responsible for issuing small-scale logging permits.
The lack of regulation leaves much room for artisanal operators to be exploited by their “patrons” (“bosses”) through endless indebtedness. “Those are the elites with access to power, information and finance,” explained CIFOR scientist Paolo Cerutti, a co-author of the study. “They act as a gateway to the timber resource through money, trucks, traditional chiefs, etc. Small-scale sawyers then use the same resource to pay them back—but there are so many risks, from bad weather to chainsaws breaking down and excessive informal taxation, that they never fully repay that debt.”
We should walk on two legs: short-term technical improvements as well as big national-level discussions on improved governance
Despite all those shortcomings, the study found that a large portion of the income from small-scale timber milling returned to rural populations through salaries as well as payments for their trees.
Artisanal loggers also chose very large trees. “It is more profitable to cut as many planks as possible from a large-diameter tree,” Cerutti explained. “However, when degradation occurs, people will go for smaller trees and less valuable species, as occurred in Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana: for these reasons, it is important to put in place sound policy frameworks, in order to avoid bringing the people’s and the State’s revenues down to nil.”
WHERE TO CHOP?
He said the DRC’s current legislation, which requires each small-scale sawyer to design a full forest management plan to obtain a 50- to 100-hectare permit, was not realistic to bring artisanal logging under careful management—the onus should instead be on the government to tell them where and how they can work sustainably.
“Some countries such as Cameroon have a strategy, albeit too weakly implemented: They need so much timber for their domestic market as part of their development effort, they have decided which areas will be logged to supply that, and which areas will be more sustainably managed,” Cerutti said. “The DRC has not yet done that; it is a long-term project. But in the short term, advanced decentralization here means that local authorities could at least look at existing inventories and tell chainsaw millers where they can go.”
Lescuyer added that some simple technical measures could encourage artisanal loggers to enter the formal sector cheaply and simply. “Easier access would be a first—not having to travel for hundreds of miles to file complex applications,” he said.
Lescuyer also recommended that existing area-based permits be replaced by authorizations to extract a given quantity of timber. “It is very difficult to send inspectors to measure exploited areas, whereas monitoring volumes coming out of the forest at the roadside is much easier,” he said.
Taxes could be then levied further down the supply chain—for example, on city markets—where they could be better understood and more transparently collected than upstream in the forest, he added.
While longer-term reforms such as tackling corruption and other inefficiencies in the DRC’s administration might take decades, Lescuyer said that quick, technical changes could ensure small-scale logging becomes more sustainable before its environmental impacts grows out of control.
“We should walk on two legs: short-term technical improvements as well as big national-level discussions on improved governance,” he said.
This research was funded by the European Union through the PRO-Formal project and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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