In 2021, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced plans to lift a 20-year ban on industrial logging concessions, sparking a heated public debate on what that could mean for the future of the world’s second largest tropical rainforest. But missing from the discussion was robust evidence on the impact of the logging concession system, which was launched together with the moratorium in 2002.
A key question was whether granting rights to industrial loggers under that more restrictive framework was making a difference in terms of overall deforestation and forest degradation, as compared to areas under similar conditions that had not been titled.
So, researchers at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) conducted a national-level study comparing the state of tropical moist forests within and outside 55 industrial logging concessions that had received their titles in either 2011 or 2014.
“What we found is that, to date, the granting of concessions to industrial loggers has not made a difference—for better or worse—in the rates of deforestation and forest degradation in the DRC,” said lead author Colas Chervier, an ecological economics researcher at the French Institute for Agricultural Research and Development (CIRAD) seconded to CIFOR-ICRAF, who emphasized the need to ground public policy debates on scientific evidence.
To quantify the impact of industrial logging titles, researchers selected ‘control’ areas that lay outside of concessions and were not assigned to other tenure regime categories like industrial mining or nature protection. These forested lands were chosen to match the titled areas in terms of risk factors for deforestation and degradation, such as the distance to roads and villages.
The ultimate objective of the research is informing policy makers as to what extent, and in which specific contexts, industrial logging concessions can halt the levels of deforestation and forest degradation.
The analysis shows that forests near human settlements are at as much risk of deforestation outside of the concessions as within them—including those that first qualified to obtain a title under the current system. This suggests that industrial loggers have so far failed to control encroachment of informal farmers, loggers, and miners into their grounds.
“Titling without strict environmental safeguards has a low impact on deforestation and forest degradation,” says the paper. “The results may be explained by the fact that a significant number of concessions in DRC are reportedly inactive, and the production in active concessions remains, on average, low. Limited concession presence on the ground is likely to result in a situation where local population pressure reaches similar levels on average in concession and control areas.”
In the DRC, the informal sector is big, logging for export markets is expensive, and forest governance is weak, all of which points to underlying causes behind the findings.
The less profitable a concession is, on account of the costs of transporting timber from the interior to seaports, the less likely it is to invest in protecting its grounds and associated road networks from encroachment. And the risk of that in the DRC is high, as small-scale agriculture accounts for a large proportion of deforestation, and artisanal loggers produce a great deal of the country’s timber.
Addressing informal sectors is the role of the DRC government, as is ensuring that all industrial logging concessions implement Forest Management Plans (FMP). In theory, the FMPs should act as a safeguard fostering planned logging and community development funds for better environmental, social, and economic outcomes.
Next research steps
While the study suggests that logging concessions do not significantly reduce, or increase, forest loss, including in areas under high deforestation pressure, it also raises new questions.
For example, whether the legal requirement to implement Forest Management Plans is enforced in the coming years and to what effect, and whether economically-viable concessions manage to reduce encroachment, and with it, third-party deforestation and forest degradation.
Regarding the potential lift of DRC’s ban on new industrial logging concessions, Chervier advised prudence: “We need to exert caution, conduct more research, and anchor all policy discussions on sound scientific data,” he said.
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