The Democratic Republic of Congo’s environment minister, Ève Bazaiba, has come under scrutiny over her alleged involvement in a series of illegal forest concessions.
Bazaiba in September reportedly deployed a team from her ministry to effectively obtain local community consent for a concession that had been illegally granted by her predecessor.
The country’s president has ordered an audit of the concessions and the suspension of all “questionable contracts,” but observers say the government hasn’t taken any action yet.
The DRC is mulling a controversial plan to end a 19-year moratorium on industrial logging, which critics say would imperil 70 million hectares (173 million acres) of forest, an area larger than France.
Controversial plans to end a 19-year moratorium on industrial logging have been on hold since October, when President Felix Tshisekedi ordered an audit of the DRC’s forest concessions along with a suspension of all “questionable contracts,” following complaints of irregularities.
Among the contentious contracts are six so-called conservation concessions given to DRC-registered company Tradelink, which were illegally awarded by Bazaiba’s predecessor, Claude Nyamugabo, in September 2020. Combined, they cover around 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres), an area more than half the size of neighboring Rwanda.
Minutes from the Oct. 15 session of the Council of Ministers confirm the “illegality of many contracts, including those signed in September 2020.” DRC law limits concessions to a maximum of 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) to any single company. President Tshisekedi told his cabinet it was “imperative that these issues can be emptied of their substance.”
The ministerial meeting came two weeks before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, as the DRC was preparing to position itself as a “solutions country” in the global fight against climate change.
“It’s inconceivable that a country in receipt of millions/billions of dollars to safeguard these forests, is simultaneously pushing through plans that will destroy these same forests, because once that moratorium is lifted, 70 million hectares [173 million acres] of forest will be in peril,” Irène Wabiwa, Greenpeace Africa’s Congo Basin forest international project manager, told Mongabay.
While campaigners welcomed the president’s intervention, they expressed reservations over the timing of the suspension — “sheer coincidence” — just ahead of the climate summit, noting that more than a year has passed since the Tradelink concessions were first granted and that many months have passed since the first alarms were raised.
“To date, we have yet to see any action taken by the government, unless of course things have been done out of sight,” Wabiwa said. “Officially, there are no signs that the government has mobilized to carry out the audit, as per the president’s instructions.”
‘The moratorium will be lifted’
In June, the Council for the Defense of the Environment through Legality and Traceability (CODELT) and the Congolese Organization of Ecologists and Allies of Nature (OCEAN) lodged an administrative appeal calling on Bazaiba to cancel the contracts.
However, three weeks ago, it emerged that Bazaiba had signed a mission order, on Sept. 13, for seven environment ministry officials to accompany a Tradelink team in the province of Tshopo, three days after the legal deadline to respond to the administrative appeal had passed unheeded. According to the mission order, the delegation’s objective was to “Facilitate the negotiation and signing of social clause agreements, carry out socioeconomic surveys, and sign the free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] of the TRADELINK Company.”
Greenpeace Africa issued a stinging response: “Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is a notion Ms. Bazaiba clearly misunderstands: ‘prior’ means before the signing of juicy contracts, not after the ‘agreed sums’ have been pocketed,” it said in a press release published Oct. 29.
The mission order also raises questions regarding the role of a provincial ministry employee who traveled as a “representative of the company” and the fact that the cost of the trip was “covered by the concessionaire.”
According to Greenpeace, the team remained in the field until Oct. 28, “almost two weeks after the president ordered the suspension of Tradelink concessions on 15 October. A document of the social clause was finalized during the mission and ready for signature. A printer failure prevented it from being signed.”
Greenpeace Africa’s revelations triggered a series of extraordinary exchanges with the Environment Ministry. Even before the latest evidence linking Bazaiba to Tradelink, she issued a barbed statement saying the government had “no lessons to learn about our resources from an NGO.” A letter penned by a coalition of civil society organizations, Indigenous groups and NGOs, including Greenpeace Africa, urging donor countries to suspend their funding of rainforest protection in the DRC until the logging ban was extended was described as “beyond daring for the 21st century” by Bazaiba.
“We will use our resources as we see fit,” she said. “We hope to leave development aid behind and instead aim for win-win partnerships, so our people can benefit from the riches of their nation.
“The moratorium will be lifted,” she added.
Bazaiba’s office has rejected all of the allegations, with the war of words escalating into the threat of legal action by Bazaiba’s chief of staff, Yves Kitumba. The spokesman said the mission order in question is precisely what alerted the government to the illegality of the Tradelink concessions: “The denunciation made to the Council of Ministers was thanks to this team,” Kitumba told Actualite.CD.