Pitfalls and Promises of Congo’s new forest Eldorado – Fern

Logging and conservation projects have spurred rapid development in the Sangha forest region of the Congo. But what’s the human and environmental cost? Laudes Martial Mbon travels to the depths of the Congo Basin rainforest to investigate.

"It is clear then, that outside Pokola, the conservation and logging projects which represent a ‘forest Eldorado’ for some, are negatively impacting the lives of many. The wealth they are generating is not trickling down. What’s more, when it comes to forest protection, the trees are standing - but peoples’ livelihoods, traditions, habitats and culture are being trashed."

Sangha Department, Republic of Congo. Pokola lies 800 kilometres north of Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, on the left bank of a bend in the vast Sangha River.

Before Congo’s independence in 1960, the town was a small, isolated fishing village. Most outsiders knew little of it, or of the Sangha region itself - other than that it was covered by dense primary forest, and winding streams.  

Today Pokola’s population numbers 13,000. It’s a place of modern buildings, including a hospital and a school, with internet and free electricity for the entire population, and a distinctly multicultural flavour, as Angolans, Rwandans, Cameroonians and other émigrés mingle with locals.

The driver for this startling transformation is visible through the airplane window on the flight there: forest canopies broken up with heavy, industrial skidding tracks used for transporting logs.

Forests covers 60% of the Congo, which is one of Africa’s most sparsely populated countries, and timber is the country’s second biggest export, after oil. Pokola is a vital hub in this industry: it is home to the headquarters of Congolaise Industrielle Des Bois (CIB), a subsidiary of Singapore’s Olam Group, which manages 2.1 million hectares of Congolese forest, and is considered as the jewel in the company’s crown.

In some ways, CIB’s operations in Pokola represent a model of development for other forestry companies, and it’s no surprise that some local civil society groups want it adopted nationally. But behind this story of economic boom, lies another more complex and cautionary tale: one which holds valuable lessons for logging and conservation projects across Africa.  

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