Saving The Forests In Congo Means Battling Armed Rebels And Old Habits

In eastern Congo , the dramatic effects of deforestation on the environment can already be seen. A new ban on illegal logging risks running into both forest-plundering rebel groups and the immediate needs of the local population.

A Congolese boy carries a stack of wood (UNHCR/S.Modola)
A Congolese boy carries a stack of wood (UNHCR/S.Modola)

BUKAVU - In the eastern Congolese province of South Kivu, wood is often the only energy source and people have long just helped themselves to a tree when they need to fuel a fire or build furniture.

But since April, facing the effects of deforestation, logging is now officially regulated in South Kivu: if you want to cut down a tree in this province, you must first obtain a special authorization from the government's environmental services. Offenders will be fined up to $1,111 and will have to plant ten trees in a designated area.

Jean-Paul Lubula, the local environmental coordinator, hopes this measure will curb a simmering ecological disaster in this region: longer dry seasons, erosion, landslides.

And yet many say it is doubtful that this ban will put an end to the deforestation, which has dramatically intensified in the past 15 years. The main cause is the proliferation of armed groups – including the regular army – who plunder wood and mineral resources in the region. These "untouchables' do whatever they want in total impunity and no bans or threats of fines are likely to change that.

"Armed men cut down trees to make charcoal which they sell in the markets," says Clément Kitambala, coordinator for Action for the Development of Peasant Communities (ADECOP), an environmental organization.

Kasikiele, from Kikongo village, has faced these groups: "Men from the Mai Mai Alleluya rebel group sometimes force us to cut trees for them."

A local logger named Willy adds: "They have weapons, so who will say no to them?"

Armed forces aren't the only ones plundering the forests, it's also a tradition in these local communities: "When they need wood for fire or to build furniture, they just chop down a tree," explains environmentalist Moïse Masaro. In a province where 80% of the population doesn't have electricity, wood is indeed the only energy source. They need the charcoal to cook.

Late rains, dry rivers

In the district of Minembwe, 60% of people are cattle breeders who regularly set fire to the bush so that they have new leaves to feed their stock. Growers cut trees too, to have more farmable land. Here, you can already see the consequences on the environment: Almost three out of seven springs have already dried up and river levels continue to drop.

Peasants from the Ruzizi tableland don't know when to sow anymore, because the rainy season now comes two or three months later than it used to. In the city of Uvira, the temperature has increased so much that many people are forced to sleep outside.

Although they approve of the new ban, environment activists remain skeptical that it can be effective. "How will they enforce the ban when the forests are in the hands of armed groups?" asks Gisèle Nsimire, an environmentalist from Bukavu. Clément Kitambala adds that Environmental services can only afford to employ two low-skilled agents to police the vast forests.

The coordinator for the ADECOP peasants group also fears the measure will reinforce poverty, because a lot of households survive thanks to the charcoal they sell. Outlawing the cutting of trees also means putting people out of work, who might then be tempted to join the rebels.

In the meantime, charcoal has become more expensive on South Kivu's markets. Local associations have already begun raising awareness among women on how to save firewood. Some NGOs have been distributing or selling new kinds of cookers that consume half as much wood or charcoal.

Read the original article in French

Photo - UNHCR/S.Modola

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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