How to protect the forests of the Congo Basin


Emmanuel Groutel, PhD in Management Sciences, is a specialist in strategic positioning. He focuses in particular on the forest, international wood flows and all that is involved in this sector. He has provided a tribune (on LA TRIBUNE Afrique website) in which he shares his vision of these markets and the possible post-crisis developments of Covid-19, dealing mainly here with the forests of the Congo Basin. We relay his text below.

The world afterwards, « Will the one that is proposed to us, as Souchon’s song indicates, be better or worse? No one can say. In any case, there are many good souls who invite us to re-found, to rethink, to rebuild, to learn from the Covid-19 crisis. Everything tells us that nature will be at the centre of the world thus reinvented. Others say, fatalists, cynics or simply observers, that all this will soon be forgotten. A few months, a few weeks will be enough to get the global machine back on track and to strike out the good resolutions with a stroke of the pen. What seems to be unanimous, however, is the importance of forests. They protect us from cold, heat and carbonaceous air. They store what is bad and they deliver what is good. They have a soul. They are adorned with all the beauties. They feed us.

It should be remembered that forests already had an essential place in the Paris Agreement, the universal agreement on climate and global warming, signed in 2016. The forest was, moreover, the only sector on which there was consensus and on which the various countries agreed. This was not the case for transport or industry. On the other hand, the recent fires in California, Portugal, Russia and Australia have reminded us, if need be, of the essential place that these areas have in our lives. It is also true that the biological invasions (fungi and insects) that are ravaging the European massifs are leading us to take even greater account of this natural heritage. Of course, more recently it is this anthropozoonosis, (a disease or infection that is naturally transmitted from vertebrate animals to humans) that Covid-19 is, that questions us on the subject of deforestation.

What is the lumber industry saying right now? First of all, forestry activity is dependent on logistics. In addition to its long-term management, wood has to be harvested, landed, transported, processed and so on. If one link in the chain breaks, the whole chain is damaged. Many producers have decided to shut down their operations. As a result, the profession has slowed down. How could it have gone otherwise, if not to endanger employees and their families?

At the same time, the international conflict between Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States over oil leadership has led to de facto fall in oil prices to levels that have made the Congo Basin’s oil-producing countries extremely fragile. Lower oil revenues and a drop in exports of forest products will have repercussions not only in terms of social unrest, but also in terms of drastic reductions in investment. It is important to take into account the uncertainties regarding the capacity of certain countries to respond to the current health challenge.

In fact, in Central Africa we are experiencing a very high probability of disorganization of supply chains. The repercussions will, of course, be on employment. Finally, the health of companies will be seriously affected.

However, an early recovery is already being felt in the Asian markets, albeit with rather bearish price criteria and a low level of environmental requirements. This is where the problem resides. Europe is still standing and China is starting to buy again. To be complete, we must take into account that the Middle Kingdom has recently committed itself to combating illegal timber imports, for which we give it credit. However, the implementation of this new policy, which we can only hope for, will take time and Asian operators in Central Africa still have a long way to go before moving up to the level of producers certified by internationally recognized labels (FSC or PEFC). Yet it is the latter, those who are most committed to sincere certification efforts, who will be put to the test in this financial and economic crisis. Indeed, their markets are the most demanding: the Netherlands, Denmark, Great Britain and Germany. In short, this is Northern Europe, where environmental associations have had the greatest impact. As long as visibility has not returned, tensions will be extreme in these markets.

Disappearance of some, emergence of others, some commentators will say that it is the invisible hand of the market, a kind of economic Darwinism. Others will be satisfied with the disappearance of foresters who harvest hundred-year-old trees from these African forests . Yet we know that over the last 15 to 20 years, revolutions have taken place in responsible African forestry and that it could, in terms of traceability, treatment of social and biodiversity issues, go back to many on these subjects. Responsible or certified foresters are creating local jobs at a time of population explosion throughout the sub-region. They understood that it was their responsibility to preserve and ensure the sustainability of these vast forests in the context of climate change. They also understood that they would have to address the growing need of African populations for wood supplies. Obviously, it is African self-consumption of wood that will be the driving force of these industries and not Europe or Asia.

Africa is developing its own model. It is innovative, and certified foresters have, for the vast majority of them, made considerable efforts. It is therefore not paradoxical to want to protect forests by protecting the foresters who are undoubtedly among those who know them best. They have been established in the territories for a long time. They know their complexities. They have become Africans themselves and they know that these terroirs must be defended. They are the potential vectors of a new, more inclusive form of forest management, based on what is now commonly known as ecosystem services. Carbon storage, biodiversity and watershed management, soil protection, hosting researchers and ecologists, agroforestry, subsistence crops are all actions that these foresters, having reached this level of maturity, can carry out.

If we really want to protect these forests, their hosts and those who live there, we can only call for support from these professionals. Timber will continue to be harvested in a measured manner and according to increasingly refined standards, providing the essential part of the value created. In order for these managers to carry out their new functions :

  • the states themselves must support them. In these difficult times, taxation is the essential tool. Fundamental support also means setting up systems for sharing carbon resources;
  • national parks and managed forests must undertake joint actions, such as the fight against poaching;
  • companies themselves must continue to challenge themselves and strive for forestry excellence. What they have learned must also be passed on;
  • International donors can contribute directly through donations to payments for ecosystem services by foresters. This can only be massive support, not cosmetic marketing of good conscience;
  • Guaranteed funding at the lowest interest rates should be provided to certified foresters;
  • The « polluters », those of the carbon economy, also have their contribution to make, not only to enable the storage of this carbon, but also to create new jobs and ensure respect for biodiversity;
  • professional associations and unions must purge members of the sector who do not commit to this quality policy;
  • Observers and critics can revise their certainties and try to understand the needs of producer countries and the quality of the work already done;
  • certification labels can no longer be passive actors. For Central Africa, it is always curious to read standards in English, whereas the most commonly spoken language in the sub-region is French. In order to allow newcomers to arrive in the good practices, levels (a minimum of legality) are to be promoted: a step-by-step rise;
  • Importers can no longer act as if they did not know. For a few euros per cubic metre of difference, some are putting a modest veil over a level of legality that would be acceptable. How is it still conceivable to market illegal or dubious timber?
  • The competent authorities must conduct a ruthless hunt for cheaters and validate the recognition of international certifications. In Europe, it would therefore be wise to take inspiration from the American regulation, the Lacey Act, which makes the entire distribution chain responsible, imposes severe fines and publicises offenders.

If this tribune has a modest pretension, it is that of being useful by raising awareness, by proposing avenues, by making known what works, even if, like all human work, it is perfectible, and by highlighting how responsible forest managers are already on the right track to participate in this famous « next world » Emmanuel Groutel