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Protecting Forests and Community Rights in the DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo cancelled logging operation titles in 12 million hectares of tropical forest this year in an effort to promote sustainable, socially responsible forest management.

Covering a land area equivalent to the size of Western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of Africa’s richest countries in terms of natural and human resources. Supported by ample rainfall and fertile soil, the nation’s vast forests and mineral resources are reservoirs of potential wealth for the nation’s 65 million citizens.

Despite this abundance of natural resources, the DRC's formal economy essentially collapsed during the last few decades due to mismanagement, lack of capacity and political will, and social unrest following two damaging wars between 1996 and 2003. The GDP per capita is now one of the lowest in the world---$300 in 2008---and the national faculty for environmental management is limited.

But the DRC is turning itself around. The recent democratic election, coupled with the support of the international development community, provides an incredible opportunity to promote strong governance and help the country develop on a sustainable track.

This growing political will and commitment to sustainable development is exemplified by recent events in the DRC forest sector: events which were supported by the World Resources Institute.

Accounting for 60 percent of forest coverage in the Congo Basin (120 million hectares), the DRC’s forests provide shelter, food, medicine, and spiritual and cultural value to the Congolese population. After the most recent war ended, the government initiated significant steps to shed necessary light into activities taking place within the country’s forest industry in order to curb illegal logging and deforestation.

These efforts culminated in a new Forest Code in 2002. The Forest Code replaced colonial rules and regulations, and for the first time set a foundation for sustainable, socially responsible forest management in the DRC. In conjunction with a 2004 moratorium on the issuance of new logging concessions, the new Forest Code mandated a broad list of environmental, forest management and social requirements that would now apply to all logging operation titles in the DRC. To achieve these, the DRC government in 2005 launched a multi-stakeholder forest title conversion process, or legal review, designed to convert old logging titles into new forest concessions that would respect the new Forest Code.

In collaboration with Belgian partner AGREGO, WRI served as the international Independent Observer during the process---monitoring the integrity of the proceedings, recording the progress of the conversion process, and making reports public. Simultaneously, WRI-AGRECO strengthened the technical capacity of the DRC government to properly conduct the documentation and field evaluation of the forest title conversion requests submitted by title holders.

WRI faced an uphill battle, amid international concern over the environmental and social consequences of opened or closed forest concessions, as well as the legality of the process itself. Moreover, WRI, along with other international and local NGOs, continuously advocated the maintenance of the environmental and social goals promised at the outset of the process by the World Bank and the DRC government.

At the end of its involvement as Independent Observer in February 2009, WRI-AGRECO formally attested that the process had been carried out in full compliance with the legal provisions applicable in the DRC and general principles of law. Out of the initial 156 titles for which a request for conversion submitted to the DRC government, only 65 were declared convertible by the Interministerial Commission, for a total area of 10 million hectare out of the 22 million hectare under review. The remaining titles, which covered a combined area equal to the size of Pennsylvania, were deemed illegal and subject to cancellation.

[img_assist|nid=11122|title=DRC Forest Title Conversion Process Results|desc=|link=node|align=center|width=480|height=472]

The outcomes of the conversion process are far reaching and have set the groundwork for transparency, accountability, and sustainable management in the DRC forest sector.

Throughout the process, up-to-date and complete information on the logging titles was made publicly available for the first time ever in the DRC. Information on the progress, constraints, limitations and results of the entire forest title process was also made freely available through reports, a project website, and numerous information workshops and meetings. Through these various avenues, forest information reached all national and international stakeholders---a strong and essential step towards transparency and improved governance in the forest sector. Moreover, by providing an efficient and practical training platform, the process improved the capacity of both the government and civil society in the DRC.

WRI’s particular involvement in the process brought international recognition to the DRC’s efforts to promote sustainable forest management. By insisting on the involvement of local and indigenous populations, WRI helped elevate the degree of participation by groups that had traditionally been marginalized in forest resource management decision-making, setting the path to a real participatory approach to forest allocation and management.

Despite some imperfections, the conversion process was hailed as a success by the majority of national and international stakeholders involved. In addition to promoting a sustainable future for the DRC, the lessons learned through the conversion process will inform and serve as examples for similar processes in the future in both the DRC and abroad, whether in forestry or any other natural resourced-based sector.

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