Last week the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) voted on its future, with many in the country nervous about the outcome. Meanwhile in Durban, delegates are meeting to try to resolve our collective future, by finding a way to tackle global climate change. As a Congolese citizen fighting to protect the forests that millions of us call home, there is a great deal at stake in the coming weeks.
For those of us who rely on forests for everything, the key to a better future is clear – we must protect our homes from the march of the logging companies, before it is too late. To us, this is not a fuzzy, distant debate about the future of big-name treaties. Forests are crucial to climate protection because they store huge amounts of carbon dioxide and emit it when they're destroyed. But this is also a human rights and development issue about how we as citizens can use our resources to build a better future. To do that, we need an international effort to protect our forests, and a government that manages them in the interest of the people who live there.
All this could happen if the right decisions are made in the next few weeks. An international framework to pay developing countries to protect their forests has been set up – it is known as Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), and is based on providing financial support to forest protection initiatives in-country, to bring those who live in forests into the conversation about how they're used. There are many such projects in DRC, which is the second most densely forested area in the world, and great things are expected from REDD+ here. But the scheme will only work if donors provide the money they have promised, set up solid oversight mechanisms to make it work, and ensure the money is not lost to corruption. This is what needs to happen in Durban.
There are threats to DRC's forests on many fronts. First, a growing population, a large majority of whom live in poverty, have opened up tracts of forest land for agriculture, often using damaging slash and burn methods. Additionally, here in North Kivu, local people are reliant on charcoal for cooking, the production of which has obvious consequences for forests.
Another threat comes from the multinational mining and oil exploration firms seeking to open up the country's mineral-rich interior. A British oil company, SOCO International Plc, recently conducted surveys in the Virunga national park in this province, a Unesco world heritage site that supports the livelihoods of more than 3 million people. DRC is incredibly rich in natural resources – their exploitation must be managed in a way that benefits the Congolese, and doesn't just line the pockets of companies.
Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to our forests. Industrial logging is opening up new areas of previously untouched forest. A moratorium on new logging contracts was imposed in 2002, while a World Bank sponsored review of existing concessions took place. The ban was not respected, and the bank did not bother to speak to the people the forests belong to, but the process is currently being rushed to a conclusion, with several logging firms a week having their contracts renewed. The people who live in DRC's forests have benefited very little from the exploitation and destruction of their homes, and social agreements signed by companies in the past have provided little more than gifts for local chiefs.
For some communities, this rush for our resources has had even harsher consequences. Following a dispute after one logging company reportedly failed to build a school in an area called Yalisika, the company was then accused of facilitating a police intervention that resulted in numerous accusations of rape, attempted rape, assault and even the death of one man. A formal court case is ongoing, and we hope this will reveal the truth in due course.
Industrial logging by large multinational corporations is not the only way forward. My organisation is lobbying for a new law that would allow communities to manage and preserve their own forests, a solution that would be good for them and good for the world's climate. REDD+ funds could provide the means to support this kind of project, as well as projects to replant deforested areas, and to promote more efficient agriculture and reduce the need to open up new tracts of land.
There is a lot of talk about another big letdown in Durban. However, if REDD+ works, it could give people who live in the forests more of a say in how they are managed. This is an issue that matters now, to real people, in very difficult situations. Next week we will find out if global leaders can find the resources to make it work.
Read more on the Congo with Zed Books. Theodore Trefon's book 'Congo Masquerade' is available now here.