The fragility of the forest: The case of the ENRA concession in Beni
It was the reconstruction of the road from Beni to Mombasa in the 1990s to enable industrial logging that facilitated the intrusion of Nande farmers into the concession, thereby increasing population density. There is also a population of Mbuti, who are hunter-gatherers inhabiting the forest, but who do not impact its degradation.
Exploitation in violation of the law
The conflicts in the ENRA concession are multifaceted. To start with, there is a conflict between the company and the local population. For over four decades, ENRA has not respected its commitments contained in the "cahier des charges” (contract specifications). This document was signed in the 1980s between the company and the population living near its concession. It was renewed on 4 May 2011, and an amendment was signed on 3 September 2013.
The cahier des charges details the social investments to be made by the company in return for its exploitation of the forest. These investments include public works and services, such as the reconstruction and maintenance of roads and supporting local students. They also relate to a fixed charge of the logged timber, of USD4 per m3 regardless the species, to be versed into a Development Fund to carry out short-term works, such as the construction of social infrastructure (health centres, primary schools, etc.), and long-term works such as the reopening of the road between Teturi and Bakaiko.
Alas, apart from a few rare achievements (one road, one school and one local government building) the long list of promised actions remains hypothetical! This non-compliance with the cahier des charges has deeply undermined confidence in the company. According to a member of a local environmental association: "This is how the community started to lament that this company is not exploiting the trees but exploiting the people." A civil society activist adds: "It looks like the corporation is plundering the wealth of the community by trickery." Some even qualify this plunder as colonial: "As he [the previous manager] is a Belgian, he manages us under neocolonialism", comments another member of the environmental association.
Recently, the conflict over ENRA’s concession has taken a turn for the worse. In January 2019, ENRA lost the rights to its forest concessions through a ministerial decree stipulating the takeover of a number of concessions by the Congolese state. The official reason for this decision was non-compliance with the procedures for developing, verifying, approving, implementing and monitoring the concession’s management plan. Yet despite its authorization having been withdrawn, ENRA has not stopped its logging activities. According to our interlocutors, it started to harness the provincial and local judiciary–both the civil prosecutor's office and the military prosecutor's office–to impose its authority. Some even accuse the company of using clandestine logging operators who do not care about the sustainability and the negative environmental effects of their logging activities. "This technique of bringing artisanal loggers into the forest was only intended to leave the forest empty, without any trees," says an environmentalist.
This confused situation is at the root of growing violence and threats in the area. According to a member of a civil society organization: "The fact that it [the company] uses the military proves that it realizes that it is no longer legal, which is why it seeks to intimidate us." The company, on the other hand, maintains that its concession is overrun with illegal loggers that it alone cannot control. Because the military and their relatives are implicated in this logging, the company has been forced to appeal to the civilian and the military prosecutor’s office. Moreover, some of the illegal exploitation takes place a night, which complicates control.
The devastation of crops
For over three decades, Nande farmers have cultivated fields on ENRA’s concessions in the Mambasa area, in collusion with local chiefs who lay customary claim to the land. The simultaneous presence of two incompatible activities in the same space, traditional agriculture and industrial logging, leads to conflicts.
Unable to counter the onslaught of the coalition of chiefs and farmers, ENRA found itself an ally, ESCO-Kivu (Edmond Schlüter & Compagnie Kivu), a Swiss agribusiness company that promotes cocoa cultivation and provides support to its producers. Its current managing director, Philip Betts, is a British national.
ENRA brought ESCO-Kivu to assist the farmers in its concession, so that they would start cultivating cocoa under the trees. The advantage of this was that it would prevent the destruction of the trees on and around these cultivated fields, otherwise targeted by artisanal loggers.
Far from providing a solution, the area has now become subject to ongoing conflicts between the concession holder and local farmers. These conflicts are driven by what the farmers call the "wicked destruction of crops" by ENRA’s logging operations. Indeed, for a farmer, it is a misfortune when the forest operator decides to cut down a tree found in the fields that they cultivate. The construction of access roads and especially the evacuation of the logs and the felling itself are all operations that devastate the crops, leaving them no chance to survive. Farmers keep on lamenting that they were tricked by ENRA: “… the same company, ENRA, which advised us to plant cocoa trees, is now destroying all our efforts by cutting down trees in a destructive way… ”
Several attempts have been made to resolve these disputes, including setting up a monitoring committee to assess the damage caused to farmers. Yet these efforts have not been successful. As the compensation mechanism was largely dysfunctional, only few cases of litigation have resulted in indemnification for the damage caused.
The difficult struggle of environmental defenders
Some NGOs and members of state services working around the ENRA concession identified very early on the threats of timber exploitation to the forest. Especially since this exploitation turned violent, a chaos has ensued that weakens the protection of the forest. Environmental defenders are involved in mapping the conflicts that plague the area, promoting reforestation and monitoring compliance with environmental regulations. An environmental officer told us: “We think of the tree as our children. When they are felled, it feels as if you lose your child.” A member of an environmental association explains that "we had to get involved because when trees are being felled in disorder, we risk observing a warming of the climate." These defenders denounced the fact that ENRA had exceeded the limits of its concession as well as the lack of reforestation.
Other members of civil society associations have invested in putting pressure on ENRA to respect the cahier des charges as well as the ministerial decree which suspends its activities. A civil society activist explains: “In the beginning, the population went on strike to ask ENRA to halt its activities. Nevertheless, the territorial authorities asked the population to stop with these strikes.” During these so-called "dead city" (ville morte) days, the last of which was held in August 2019, everyone suspended their economic activities and there was no market.
This activism puts defenders in the crosshairs of those with differing opinions. First, they receive threats from people who support the company. In the words of a civil society activist: "We are threatened, because the company sees us as the problem." In addition, locals profiling themselves as ‘natives’ accuse them of usurping their authority over the land by implanting non-natives who take control over timber production, which they believe should be the exclusive right of the indigenous population. Aside from threats, cases of arrests are not uncommon. Moreover, because they advocate for policies that stand opposed to those preferred by state agents, defenders are often accused of intoxicating the population. They are also exposed to physical insecurity perpetrated by armed groups who are harnessed by actors seeking to position themselves strategically in these socio-environmental conflicts.
The different conflicts that plague the ENRA concession have one key consequence: the imminent depletion of the timber resource. Fortunately, there are environmental associations which, despite the challenges, fight for the sustainable management of this resource, often with limited means and while working in very isolated areas. It is thanks to these brave people that the new generations will know what the forest is and will learn about different tree species, such as Kiki and Linzo which, for centuries, have helped provide for our basic needs, including medicines and building our homes.
This blogpost is part of a series on socio-environmental struggles in North-eastern DR Congo