Thousands of square kilometers of the world’s second-largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, sit on the verge of destruction, according to a new report released today by Earthsight, the London-based non-profit that investigates global environmental issues.
Earthsight documented approximately 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of deforestation to clear the way for new rubber and oil palm plantations in Central Africa’s rainforest countries over the past five years. But the team also found that companies in Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hold licenses for industrial agriculture on another 8,400 square kilometers (3,243 square miles) of land. Their research shows that government authorities granted several of these concessions with little regard for transparency, and in some cases in violation of laws written to protect forests, often to devastating effect for local communities.
Globally, illegal conversion of forests to agriculture led to nearly half of deforestation in tropical forests between 2000 and 2012.
The low prices that palm oil and rubber fetch on global commodity markets has held conversion in check in DRC for now, said Sam Lawson, Earthsight’s executive director, in an interview. The lack of roads and functioning infrastructure in large parts of the Congo Basin make the region a complicated and expensive place for agricultural companies to operate, he said, so prices must be high enough to justify the substantial overhead.
But, according to Lawson, the path to continued production of commodities like palm oil and rubber will undoubtedly pass through tropical Africa, as producers run out of land in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world where they’ve grown these crops for decades.
“The demand for the raw materials in China continues to grow, and the available land in the traditional production areas [continues] to diminish,” Lawson said. The report reveals that several of the largest companies operating in the region are doing so illegally, including two related companies in the Republic of Congo.
In 2013, the government of the Republic of Congo authorized a company called Lexus Agric, without making any of the contracts public, to plant oil palm and rubber trees on a 500-square-kilometer section of forest in the southern part of the country. Lexus Agric’s permit to operate in the area expired in June 2016, but satellite images show that the company continued to build logging roads and clear forest, even in areas of critical habitat called intact forest landscapes, into July of that year.
As the illicit clearing was happening on the Lexus Agric concession in 2016, Jeremie Issamou, one of the company’s directors, posted a picture of a truck hauling a massive log out of the forest on Facebook. The Republic of Congo’s director general of agriculture, Simon Dieudonné Savou, commented on the post, warning that bragging about this “secondary activity” might lead to sanctions on the company.
Savou did not respond to a request for an interview with Mongabay. Issamou responded but declined to comment on the report’s findings.
Issamou is also a former director of a company called Atama Plantation, which the government of the Republic of Congo gifted with a 4,700-square-kilometer (1,815-square-mile) concession for oil palm in 2010. Large populations of chimpanzees and gorillas roam vast stretches of this concession, which also holds carbon-rich peatlands and intact forest landscapes.
As early as 2011, allegations of developing the concession without an approved environmental impact assessment tainted the company’s operations. Earthsight said that by 2016 the company was effectively functioning as a commercial timber concern, cutting and processing the trees that its crews cut down for sale.
Under the radar
Large agricultural companies often face intense scrutiny from watchdog NGOs and consumers if they take part in shady dealings. But Lawson and his team found that companies not traditionally involved in agriculture hold a number of licenses for large-scale agricultural plantations in the Congo Basin. That distance provides a buffer against outside criticism.
In Cameroon, a company called Greenfil is carrying out “some of the most rapid deforestation anywhere in the region” for an oil palm plantation, the Earthsight report authors write. Nana Bouba, the multimillionaire owner of Greenfil, reportedly plans to use palm oil from the concession to make soap for the Cameroonian market through another company he owns called Azur.
Scant public information exists about the Greenfil project, which could be anywhere from 300 to 1,230 square kilometers (116 to 475 square miles). But Earthsight’s examination of recent satellite data has found that the clearing has come within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the Ebo Wildlife Reserve, the site of a proposed national parkand a sanctuary for the endangered Nigeria-Cameroon subspecies of chimpanzees(Pan troglodytes ellioti).
Elsewhere, producers shield themselves behind the opacity of shell companies. Until 2017, a Malaysian outfit called Wah Seong had partially owned the Atama plantation since 2012. As allegations of illegality on the Atama estate mounted last year, Wah Seong sold its interest to Agro Panorama, a shell company in Malaysia that’s also linked to some 250 other companies.
Mongabay contacted representatives of Wah Seong and Atama but received no responses.
Lawson said that if demand once again drove up the prices of palm oil and rubber on international markets, “There are plenty of companies out there with the interest to operate the projects in a way [that] doesn’t follow those rules,” he said. “There are big enough markets for them to sell their products.”
While larger companies are more inclined to rid their palm oil and rubber supply chains of illegalities to protect their images, such concerns might not burden other players.
“These are not companies that are likely to be susceptible to the usual influences,” Lawson said. “It’s one of the many drawbacks of putting too much focus on voluntary corporate pledges to deal with the deforestation associated with these forest-risk commodities.”
Regulations such as the EU Timber Regulation and the Lacey Act in the U.S., as well as voluntary partnership agreements between timber-producing countries and buyers in Europe have helped to improve accountability in the timber sector, Lawson said. He added that similar strategies aimed at improving the sustainability and legality of industrial agriculture could reduce its environmental impact by focusing on the sources of raw materials such as palm oil and rubber.
“You need a regulatory approach,” Lawson said, “and a regulatory approach [that] involves regulations on the demand side as well as supply side.”
But right now, “Those same rules and regulations commonly don’t apply to conversion licensees,” Lawson said.
Funding mechanisms, by which wealthy countries pay developing countries to maintain their forest cover, such as REDD+ (short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries), could also give donors the “soft power” to push for improved governance of industrial agriculture, he said. These efforts involve hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If [donors] put the same attention into forcing the government to be genuinely transparent about licensing on rubber and palm oil, I think that would be a more productive use of their influence,” he added.
The prices of palm oil and rubber won’t remain low forever, he added, so it’s essential to find ways to make the most of this opportunity.
“All the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the disaster wrought by industrial agriculture to rainforests elsewhere,” he said in a statement. “There is still a chance to prevent this, but time is running out.”