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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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