But as east African road and rail networks expand and transportation costs fall, the DRC’s eastern forests will become more vulnerable to surging demand by regional and global markets.
This could threaten one of the world’s richest biodiversity areas. The DRC’s eastern forests are one of the last remaining intact tracts of rainforest on the planet, second only to the Amazon. They help to regulate climate and provide resources – like food, medicines, materials and shelter – to millions of people. They’re also rich in minerals and forest products. Timber is highly coveted for its commercial value and, once roads are opened to harvest it, further encroachment and deforestation may follow.
Effective management and monitoring of timber harvesting and trade is therefore key to ensure the country’s laws are respected, a fair share of the benefits are captured, and illegal timber exports and tax fraud are reduced.
The country already has one of the highest annual deforestation rates on the planet. Since 2010, it has lost at least 500,000 hectares of forest every year, with peaks well above one million hectares per year. And while timber harvesting is not the largest contributor to the DRC’s deforestation rates – small-scale agriculture is – it remains a daily activity for thousands of operators serving the national and international markets.
In 2017 the DRC began to lay the legal groundwork to establish a series of “timber parks” at border crossings around the country, with an initial focus on the eastern borders. These would monitor timber exports and revenue collection.
Over a period of two and a half years, we worked with Congolese authorities and timber park officials to test the first timber park at a major eastern border, operational since August 2018. We wanted to determine how well the current system worked in assessing the volume of timber leaving the DRC’s eastern borders. We also wanted to know how it could be improved.
Together with the park team, we found that timber reached the border without proper paperwork (making it impossible to determine where it came from); that only part of the total volume was being correctly declared; and that the mis-declaration of tree species was common, leading to timber being improperly taxed or not taxed at all. In the process, both local communities and the government lose.
However we also found that the presence of the park, and the pressure put on traders, did improve things over time. Park personnel were also quick to adapt and adopt improved verification techniques, making illegal trade more difficult, if fully supported by their supervisors.