Christian Mounzéo and Essylot C. Lubala look at China’s new forest law and the practical results
it may have in forested countries, such as the Congo Basin.
At first glance, by adding a prohibition on buying illegally sourced timber, China’s draft changes to its Forest Law seem to be an important step forward for the climate and environment. It is feared, however, that China’s unrelenting demand for timber will continue to strip forests elsewhere – fuelled by a patron-client approach to business that exacerbates corruption, as in Africa.
The amended legislation would prohibit purchasing, manufacturing or transporting timber known to come from illegal logging sources. Yet the draft does not specify how wide-ranging the scope of this ban on illegal timber will be, or whether it will support and complement similar legislation elsewhere, including the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. A final version is expected ahead of the Convention on Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP)15, planned for later this year but now postponed, and much will also depend on its practical application and enforcement.
China’s spectacular economic boom has driven its appetite for timber, and China is now the world’s largest importer of wood. Timber-producing countries in the Congo Basin, for instance, export the majority of their wood to China. Most African timber is traded by Chinese companies. China is also the largest exporter of wood products destined largely for the EU market.
Forest defenders claim that China has simply shifted logging from home to abroad, at a high cost to the environment and local livelihoods.
It is therefore no surprise that civil society activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have protested the Congolese Government’s recent signature of nine logging contracts to two Chinese companies. The Congolese Minister for Sustainable Development and the Environment stated that these contracts do not create new logging concessions but simply transfer existing ones to new companies.
Local civil society, however, are asking that the permits be cancelled. They have established that the decision violates the 2002 moratorium on industrial logging, adopted to protect the forests that cover more than half of DRC’s territory, and find that the Minister’s claims are unsubstantiated.
In 2018, the allocation of new logging concessions sparked controversy about their legality, given the moratorium and the adoption of new allocation procedures. “It is important that history not repeat itself,” says Essylot Lubala from Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestière, an independent forest monitor in the DRC.
NGO reports have pointed to the problematic behaviour of Chinese investors that breach various national regulations. In neighbouring Republic of the Congo, SEFYD (of the Yuan Dong logging company), which holds the Jua Ekie concession, violated social obligations toward local communities and bypassed the forest and environmental regulations by allowing mining inside logging concessions.
“This must stop, and governments in the region have a responsibility to act efficiently by taking appropriate measures. The new Chinese legislation sends a strong signal that will allow the reinforcement of control mechanisms,” commented Nina Kiyindou from l’Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme.
Such actions have an impact beyond the Congo Basin. Illegal logging is the leading cause of forest degradation worldwide and contributes to global warming. Unlawful felling of trees threatens biodiversity and provokes loss of local communities’ land and livelihoods.
It is important that China’s actions match the stated intentions of its legislation. According to Christian Mounzéo from la Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme in the Republic of Congo, there is hope that the new Chinese law will also help to fix Chinese companies’ dubious practices abroad. Key steps are that Chinese companies no longer ‘export/relocate’ illegal logging, and that those operating in countries implementing Voluntary Partnership Agreements support, rather than undermine this process. China should encourage its African partner countries to strengthen their forest legislation to step up domestic efforts against the trade in illegally sourced timber. Too often China takes considerable advantage of weaknesses in national laws in order to evade legal obligations.