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Located on the bumpy road connecting run-down Bangoka International Airport to the city of Kisangani in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Compagnie Forestière et de Transformation’s (CFT) sawmill stands as an oasis of change.

A visit inside the streamlined structure reveals a timber company taking positive steps towards sustainability. In a context where poor governance is the norm, a responsible private sector could be the much-needed game-changer for forest management in this central African country.

I accompany a small group of visiting scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), who are checking-in on the fruits of their collaboration with CFT.

Our guide is Cécile Lubwilu Lolo, a knowledgeable Congolese woman leading CFT’s forest management unit. To our right, cold drinking water is available for employees. To the left, signposts in French, Swahili and Lingala explain the safety rules for visitors. As we tour the sawmill, we see fully equipped men and women, producing perfectly cut wooden planks – a rare sight in a country who still largely exports unprocessed logs.

   Most of DRC’s timber exports are logs, without any transformation. Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   CFT’s sawmill in Kisangani. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

CFT is one of the first logging companies in DRC to engage in a long-term sustainability effort and to successfully obtain a certificate attesting the legality of its operations, explains Lubwilu. “We only saw timber that comes from our forest concessions and we comply with all Congolese regulations, yet we wanted to go one step forward. We undertook an independent audit, and in May 2019 we obtained a NEPCon LegalSource certificate,” she adds.

There was a strong incentive for CFT to seek this certification, as it allows the company to meet international buyers’ demands for legality and comply with different countries’ import regulations.

“The global timber market has become more demanding in recent years,” explains Paolo Cerutti, a senior scientist and forestry expert at CIFOR. “If logging companies in DRC want to keep their clients and expand their trading networks, they need to increase transparency, ensure legality and make constant efforts towards the sustainable management of their concessions.”

   Wood transformation at the CFT. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Trees for the future

Across the road, Lubwilu guides us to an open field where CFT is conducting its first silviculture efforts in collaboration with CIFOR’s FORETS (Formation, Recherche et Environnement dans la Tshopo) conservation and development project. Next to a small pond surrounded by pineapple plantations, a thatched roof protects dozens of seedlings from the scorching sun.

The nursery contains samples of some of DRC’s most commercially valuable trees, including Ebony, Afrormosia, Wenge and Iroko. The objective is to find out how these species reproduce and grow, so in the future CFT can integrate silviculture practices in its concessions, explains Lubwilu.

   Cécile Lubwilu Lolo is responsible for CFT’s forest management unit. Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   CFT’s nursery has seedlings of some of DRC’s most valuable hardwood trees. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

To date, few companies in DRC invest in generating knowledge to guide reforestation or tree selection for harvest. “This is a short-term vision, which is unfortunately prevalent across sub-Saharan Africa”, explains Cerutti. “For any sustainability effort to be successful, we need to understand what to plant, where and when. And for the industry to thrive on the long-term, such knowledge is essential.”

All logging companies operating in DRC are required to pay a so-called ‘reforestation tax,’ adds Nils Bourland, wood biology scientist at the RMCA. “By paying this tax, most enterprises say that they have done their part. However, in practice, public revenue is rarely used for silviculture-related activities.”

This is why the private sector needs a change of mindset, acknowledges Lubwilu. “We need to invest in research to better understand how to minimize our environmental impact and exploit forest resources without endangering species.”

Investing in science

Behind the nursery, Bourland and Hulda Hatakiwe, a Congolese forest engineer working with CIFOR, are busy researching the growth patterns of Afrormosia. Afrormosia is a hardwood species native to Central and West Africa, and one of the most harvested and valuable species in DRC thanks to its popularity with furniture makers and interior designers.

Bourland and Hatakiwe are using Nelder wheels: a field design where trees are planted in concentric circles. Very little space is left between them at the center, and they are planted farther away from each other as the circle expands outwards, in a carefully planned arrangement. The design demonstrates how distance impacts trees’ growth. Each plant is identified and recorded, so as to better understand reproduction patterns.

   Planting trees in conjunction with FORETS project in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

“We planted these trees 18 months ago, and we are already observing growth differences,” explains Hatakiwe. “The trees in the middle are taller, while the trees on the edge are shorter, but their stems are thicker and have more branches already.”

The cause of this, according to Hatakiwe, is that the trees in the middle are competing for sunlight. As they grow, some of them will probably die. “This is something we observe in nature. When we cut one Afrormosia, the surrounding trees can grow better,” Lubwilu adds.

Afrormosia is very vulnerable as it does not regenerate well naturally in Central Africa’s closed canopy forests. Its trees are increasingly harvested by artisanal loggers operating under the radar of the authorities, jeapordizing its very existence.

Thus it is classified as endangered in the IUCN Red List and its trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). “Understanding how to support its reproduction could contribute to protection efforts and potentially save this species from overexploitation,” adds Hatakiwe.

This type of experiment is very important for the logging sector. If for example, CFT engages in artificial regeneration, these data can be used to determine the distance that should be left between trees when planting to produce timber. “Tall, thin trees are not ideal for sawing. Medium, thick trees without low branches could produce bigger, more expensive planks,” explains Bourland. “Furthermore, this knowledge could guide selective logging, cutting only some trees, while leaving others to grow.”

   Hulda Hatakiwe explains the progress of the study to visitors. Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   At the center of the plot, trees were planted very close from each other. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

The long-term commitment of CFT is fundamental for this experiment. 648 trees have been planted, with CFT assuming responsibility for their care. This is particularly poignant given the slow growth of the trees: Afrormosia needs to grow for around 60 years before it can be logged. Therefore the plot of land used will need to be dedicated to the cause for the long haul.

“CFT’s willingness to invest their own resources and staff is crucial for our research,” says Hatakiwe. “Without such resolve, we would not be able to conduct such a long and expensive experiment.”

“We believe that private sector engagement towards sustainability is crucial for the future of DRC’s forests,” says Cerutti. “Therefore, we are looking for ways to expand our collaboration with CFT and to work with other progressive companies as much as possible.”

A graduate program supported by the FORETS project, for example, is now offering hands-on internships at CFT, and a Ph.D. student is conducting research on genetics using the trees in the nursery.

“What we would like to see is more companies taking similar steps,” says Bourland. “DRC is home to 60 percent of the Congo Basin – Africa’s most important tropical forest – yet its logging industry is far behind other countries in the region in terms of sustainability…this needs to change.”


This research was supported by the European Union.
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