As part of the programme “Paradis naturels retrouvés” broadcast on ARTE, which highlights places whose biotopes are preserved thanks to exemplary human initiatives, documentary filmmaker Thomas Weidenbach visited a forest concession in the north of the Republic of Congo owned by IFO, a subsidiary of the Swiss group Interholco, an international trader of tropical timber.
In this 44-minute episode entitled: “Republic of Congo: Gorilla Forest”, the director, shows how the FSC-certified forestry company is able, through sustainable management, to preserve its vast 11,600 km2 forest, nature and those who live off it. Contrary to popular belief about the tropical timber trade, the company protects animals and the social rights of its inhabitants against the many existing threats (poaching, illegal logging, mining, poverty, etc.).
It presents in a pictorial and educational way the activities of workers and loggers on the ground who respect a management plan listing the position of the trees to be harvested and that of the trees and sectors to be preserved: maps detailing the state and physiognomy of the forest and obtained thanks to the meticulous work of the “surveyors” who criss-cross it and inspect it tree by tree. Thus the IFO inventories its concession to the nearest metre, records the different species, measures the diameters of the trees, lists their position, and assigns them identification numbers to enable not only the chain of custody but also to plan what can be harvested over a year.
The IFO never operates its concession as a whole: its territory is divided into 30 parcels called “assiettes annuelles de coupe “. Each year, only one “assiette” is harvested and only one tree is cut every two hectares. With the annual rotation, the loggers only return to an area 30 years later, allowing the forest to regenerate.
In order to be able to exploit its forest over the long term and enjoy its benefits, the company has every interest in managing it responsibly.
The filmmaker points out that the census also applies to wildlife (monkeys, elephants, etc.): each future logging area is inspected by a nature conservation organisation. Areas with many animals or rare species and areas densely populated by gorillas are not affected by loggers. Thus, 27% of the total area of the IFO concession is retained. The areas entirely cleared by the logging company do not exceed 7% of the annual base area (clearing for trunk storage, skidding roads). And in just 6 months the vegetation covers them again.
With its 1000 employees, IFO and is the main employer in the region. In addition to providing financial support to local villages and well-paying jobs, the company also respects the traditions and needs of local communities by signing agreements with them before starting work in an area. Thus, mediators come to meet them to listen to their requests: to improve the road leading to the neighbouring village, to not cut down some trees around the village, to contribute to teachers’ salaries, etc. They also meet the pygmies living in the forest, and, using a GPS, identify the protected trees, the area where their camp is located, the sacred places or the precious trees, which the company undertakes not to touch.
Finally, against all odds, censuses conducted by independent researchers have shown that gorillas are well adapted to the presence of loggers since 70,000 gorillas in the western plains of the country are sheltered in the IFO concession. The highest concentration of the species in the world, including in the nearby national park where monkeys are hunted by the local population. Especially since this figure remained stable from 2007 to 2014, while in other regions, monkey populations are declining.
It can be deduced that the company’s activities are beneficial to these animals and that the territory it operates is ultimately a safe haven since it even protects them against poachers. In return, gorillas, who consume a lot of fruit, spread the seeds and contribute to the regeneration of the forest.
In recent years, the action of the IFO companies and its neighbour CIB has increased the area of the territory considered safe for gorillas (now almost twice the size of Belgium). This success is not only due to national parks: these two forestry companies, whose actions have long been ignored in the rest of the world, have played a major role in this evolution.
But tropical forests are also threatened by the fact that their soils are full of precious raw materials. The IFO was able to cut short a gold mining project in its concession, but it is becoming urgent to find, with the government, solutions to exploit the country’s resources in a sustainable way.
In northern Congo, faced with illegal logging, poaching, mining and other threats to the forest and its inhabitants, there are two ways to protect forests: create national parks (if you have the means to protect them) or create forest concessions where the resource will be managed in a sustainable way, with conservation projects.
With its 10,000 inhabitants, the city of Ngombé, thanks to IFO, benefits from clean water and free electricity for its employees and is in full economic development. The documentary filmmaker believes that the region could serve as a model for all of Central Africa, where the second largest tropical rainforest is located after the Amazon.
Sustainable forestry, FSC-certified tropical timber and national parks promise hope for this forest, for the benefit of people and nature.
The documentary will be rebroadcast on Arte on Monday, July 1 at 12:05 pm and is also available online (in French and German) until July 23, 2019 at this address: