Industrial logging companies in the DRC and respect for the law: mission impossible?
IFCO logs in loading port
Unfortunately, these laws are rarely fully respected nor systematically enforced- causing logging to become destructive and communities to lose out.
According to Article 89 of the DRC Forestry Code, industrial logging companies must sign a so called cahier des charges (contract specifications) with the communities affected by their operations. This document contains both general clauses that specify the technical conditions for exploitation and specific clauses. The latter include a sub-clause touching on corporate social responsibility. It commonly lists the socio-economic infrastructure that the company commits to constructing, such as roads, hospitals and schools–work that is in principle the responsibility of the Congolese state. The execution of this social clause is organized and monitored by a Local Management Committee (CLG) and a Local Monitoring Committee (CLS), which operate at the level of the groupement (local government entity).
Faced with companies that want to minimize social expenditure and maximize profits, the CLG and CLS members who take their mandate seriously face an uphill battle. Their work is blocked by political actors or the forestry administration or, worse, they are intimidated by company representatives or supporters. They are also regularly drawn into local conflicts. Despite these difficulties, they fight courageously to hold logging companies to account. The case of the logging company Industrie forestière du Congo (IFCO, Congo Forest Industry) demonstrates the importance of these efforts.
A controversial company
IFCO operates two concessions in the DRC, one of which is located in the territories of Bafwasende and Banalia in Tshopo province, where it holds concession N ° 018/11. Previously, this concession was in the hands of Trans-M, a company created by the Lebanese entrepreneur Ahmed Tajideen. In 2010, the company Congo Futur, which Tajideen also owned, was placed on the US sanctions list because of alleged ties to Hezbollah financiers. Suspicion of continuing links with Congo Futur would have prompted the company, by then known as Cotrefort, to transfer its concessions in 2018 to IFCO, the owners of which are unknown. However, not much has changed in terms of the company’s staff and operations.
In a briefing published in 2019, Global Witness accuses the company of several irregularities, including logging outside the concession’s perimeter, non-payment of certain taxes, violations of the labour code and non-compliance with and absence of social clauses. In a reaction to the said briefing, the umbrella organization of the timber industry in the DRC that IFCO is a member of, the Fédération des industriels du bois (FIB, Federation of Timber Processing Companies) categorically denied these allegations. While admitting that in early 2018, IFCO was suspended by the governor of Tshopo province for non-payment of taxes, lack of respect for social clauses and violations of the labour code, it claimed that this suspension was only short-lived.
Tug of war over social clauses
According to members of the different Local Management Committees in the concession of IFCO and its predecessors, there have indeed been numerous problems with the management and execution of the social clauses. These problems result from a lack of will on the part of the company, manipulation by politicians and the forestry administration, and power conflicts both within and between different groupements.
The first social clause was signed with the groupement of Bevenseke in August 2011 for the period from 2011 to 2014. However, logging operations had already started in 2010. "So they gave $51,000 as a lump sum to the chief of the groupement for operating in 2010. A good part of this money was used for buying goods for personal use and some of it disappeared. That was the beginning of the conflict," said a CLG member. Considering these circumstances, it is not surprising that several of the planned infrastructural projects were never realized.
In the neighbouring groupement of Boumbwa, the 2011-2014 social clause was not fully implemented either. One reason is that the company sought to reduce the funds allocated to social development, citing low production during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. It therefore proposed an amendment to the social clause, which also included a provision to substitute a part of the envisaged community infrastructure with goods for personal use by local leaders. This amendment was signed in a rush and in untransparent circumstances, preventing the community from actively participating or seeking advice and assistance from experts on the matter.
According to observers, it is questionable whether there was in fact a significant drop in production. In the following years, the company asked the forestry administration for authorization to evacuate timber that had been left in the forest in 2011 and 2012, raising suspicion that production during these years had been higher than initially stated. Yet the company ultimately received authorization and the timber was removed.
The third social clause, which was signed in November 2019 with the groupements of Bevenzeke, Bangba and Boumbwa, has not been spared controversy either. According to the residents of Bevenzeke, the groupement of Boumbwa has no forest, a point that has led to a conflict between these two local entities regarding the division of the social development funds.
It is worth noting that the inhabitants of the two groupements never participated in the baseline study, mapping and other stages of the elaboration of the management plan that serves as a basis for the social clause, which could have helped avoid this conflict. Hence while company representatives often invoke local conflicts to explain why the implementation of social clauses is lagging behind, these conflicts are in part the result of the company’s failure to organize genuinely participatory management processes.
FCO's loading port on the Lindi River.
Threats and conflicts
Some CLG members say that they discovered in 2017 that the company was logging outside the annual cutting area, the zone designated to be exploited according to the concession’s management plan. Moreover, the company would have abandoned these logs in the forest instead of evacuating them-allegations that company representatives deny. In response, locals barricaded the road to Alimbuku. "We said, how can you relocate? That is to say, you are ravaging our forest without us being able to benefit from it," explained an eyewitness. They also alerted the provincial Ministry of the Environment to the situation.
In response, according to these CLG members, the manager of the company accused them at the Minister of Internal Affairs, claiming they were "inciting the community" and causing a loss of income for local residents.
According to our interviewees, the company tries to avoid the CLG’s scrutiny by peddling influence with local, provincial and national authorities. These authorities then obstruct the work of CLG members, which takes the form of threats, arrests, and even prosecutions. As one of them testifies, "We are targeted because we are defending the rights of this forest. We find that telling the truth has become a problem.”
The company also works closely with the state security services. Its logging sites are guarded by the military instead of the police. Some CLG members see this as a strategy of intimidation: “It's a way to intimidate us. When you see the military, you have nothing to say”.
Other threats come from local authorities. At this level, local conflicts come into play, particularly the conflict over customary power in the groupement of Bevenzeke. As members of both sides were represented on the management and monitoring committees, these two bodies became the stage on which the conflict played out. While these conflicts may not be directly driven by the company, they are clearly useful to it as they prevent a unified position within these committees, which undermines their work and efficiency.
Preventing the destruction of the forest
Despite these difficulties, CLG members have not lost courage. As one of them explains: "Our first goal is to prepare for the future, that everything is not destroyed today... we did not have schools in our days, thank God we have now been blessed with schools; that's why we must prepare our children. We will soon build a school here with the development funds, a school in brick with metal sheets, and other equipment. This will help children understand that the forest is a treasure to be protected, that we should not destroy the forest, it can provide us with many benefits.”
Holding industrial logging companies to account and ensuring that they respect the law and the agreements they signed will remain a constant struggle, the outcome of which is crucial for the future of the Congo Basin Forest and its residents.
This blogpost is part of a series on socio-environmental struggles in North-eastern DR Congo
Judith Verweijen is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the interplay of violence, conflicts around natural resources and social mobilisation. She focuses on eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she has regularly conducted fieldwork since 2010.