An emergent canopy tree felled for timber in East Africa. The great height of these canopy trees creates a large vertical space beneath which smaller trees and plants can grow, promoting extraordinary biodiversity. Photo: Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

By John C. Cannon
11 February 2016

(mongabay.com) – The Republic of the Congo announced the allocation of 6 timber concessions on 8 January 2016 covering 2 million hectares (7,722 square miles), an area about the size of Israel. Two of the concessions were awarded ahead of government-established bid deadlines, an apparent breach of protocol, with little explanation as to why.

“Past operating modes no longer correspond to current issues,” said Henri Djombo, minister of the forest economy and sustainable development, who presided over the January forestry commission meeting. He was quoted in the newspaper, La Semaine Africaine, saying: “It is about changing culture.” Djombo’s office did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Simon Counsell, executive director of London-based NGO, Rainforest Foundation UK, said in an email that the fact that the commission did not wait for the completion of the bidding cycle hinted “very strongly at illegal or corrupt allocation processes.”

The concession announcements come amid escalating criticism from researchers, conservation groups and forestry observers that the Republic of the Congo’s claimed progress toward a more legitimate logging sector may not be all it seems. […]

This year’s concession agreements stirred up concerns over possible corruption at the highest levels of government, including questionable relationships between officials and the companies they ought to be policing, lax collection of taxes and fines, and possible connections to next month’s elections in a country with a history of violence around significant national votes.

“It would not be the first time there had been a fairly big (and corrupt) sell-off of concessions shortly before an election” to help fund a political campaign, Counsell told mongabay.com.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has held the country’s highest office for 32 of the last 37 years in two separate stints, is running for a third term, which only late-2015 changes to the constitution made possible, with an extension of term limits and age limits for the office of president. Similar attempts to hold onto power are not uncommon on the African continent, and such moves have led to protest and violence in Burundi, Burkina Faso and Niger in recent years.

The extreme constitutional measures taken by Nguesso to stay in power, the potential for electoral violence, and the hurried manner of concession awards, have led in turn to speculation about the particular companies involved in the latest logging concession transactions. [more]

Republic of Congo awards two million hectares of timber concessions

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