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Logging in the Congo Exacerbates Poverty and Leads to Social Conflicts

Logging in the Congo Exacerbates Poverty and Leads to Social Conflicts


By Susanne Breitkopf


Alfonse Muhindo and Silas Siakor have traveled all the way to Washington, D.C. from the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. Walking into the enormous atrium of the World Bank, filled with glass and light and a fountain in the center sending endless water flowing down the walls, the visitors are then greeted by big, shiny letters on the wall of the entrance hall—“Our dream is a world without poverty."

Ten years ago, the World Bank initiated a reform of the forest sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country was in shambles, after years of war, with a dysfunctional government and war still raging in the east of the country. The Congo, a country almost the size of Western Europe, has the second largest rainforest in the world. Most of the vast, low land rainforests are still intact. Forty million people depend on the forests for their livelihoods. It provides food, building materials, energy, medicines and more.

We are joined by my friend Reiner Tegtmeyer, from the organization Global Witness who is attending this World Bank event to screen a film from his visits to 67 local communities affected by logging in the Congo, trying to find out what has changed after almost ten years of World Bank sponsored reform. The results he presents in the film are sobering. “They take our trees without leaving anything," an angry man says into the camera. A woman adds, “There have been no positive impacts, only disorder."

Tegtmeyer informs the audience, "We have tons of this material, this is only a snapshot.”

Another woman in the film recalls her village’s worst nightmare, describing security forces—including police—called in by a Liechtenstein-based logging company who raided the place and raped women, including minors. “They even raped a pregnant woman and left her to die," she says. That was in 2006. The children of these crimes have been born in the meantime, but the victims have never seen justice.

This year it happened again, in another area controlled by SIFORCO, a subsidiary of Swiss group Danzer. Villagers were fed up with the broken promises and seized some equipment from the company in order to get them to the negotiation table. In a mission of brutal retaliation, security forces came to the loggers’ assistance, raped women and girls, beat people up and destroyed property. Sixteen people were arrested by police and deported to prison. Company equipment and money was used to help facilitate the crack-down. Siforco is currently preparing for an eco-label certification with the help of the German development bank KfW.

Watching the testimonials, one wonders how the World Bank could continue to celebrate its success in the Congo forest so enthusiastically.  Never mind that the moratorium on new logging titles it helped install was breached just weeks after it was signed in 2002. Never mind that most of the much touted millions of hectares of cancelled logging titles were in fact just paper titles where no tree was being cut. Never mind that the government increased the number of legal logging titles from originally 29, recommended by its own experts, to 80 as of January 2011. Never mind that the negotiations about so-called social responsibility contracts between communities and logging companies have been a complete farce. For the World Bank, this reform is an extraordinary achievement.

I ask the bank’s senior forest advisor who joined us for the screening, "After ten years of successful World Bank intervention, why are the rights of local communities still being trampled on?" Four years ago, Greenpeace produced a film that has a striking resemblance to the images Tegtmeyer is showing us today. What happened to all that money that was supposed to improve governance and bring transparency and sustainability to the logging industry?

Déjà vu

The DRC is not the only and not the first country where the World Bank has been pushing logging reform programs, and there are important lessons to be learned from the past. This is why I focus my presentation on Cameroon, the pioneer of forest reform where a new forest law was introduced already in 1994. The World Bank was instrumental in bringing it about, and hailed it as Africa’s most progressive forest law. The World Bank pushed through changes in the tax regime in order to increase revenues from logging, and a requirement for companies to have an approved management plan for their cutting operations. A regulation to enable community forests was also added. Seventeen years later, it is obvious that the model has failed.

Recent studies are showing that, even if the theory of sustainable management was working—which it isn’t—there is nothing sustainable about it. In fact, it will be only a matter of time until the ancient trees will be gone forever from Cameroon’s sustainably logged forests. Communities in and around logging concessions in Cameroon are still impoverished. The revenues are not reaching them. But the World Bank set out to copy and paste the Cameroonian model in the DRC, despite our warnings.

Gerhard Dieterle has been working in the World Bank’s forest department for many years. He admits that “looking at these pictures is depressing, undeniably deplorable." He agrees that more needs to be done to support community forests and local management. He is personally involved in a couple of small new initiatives at the World Bank with the aim of strengthening local control in the forest sector and supporting indigenous peoples.

“We have learned a lot," he concedes. However, as long as the mainstream operations of the World Bank continue to focus on support for large scale logging concessions, and continue to ignore the needs of local communities and indigenous peoples, these little initiatives on the side remain a drop in the ocean—a fig leaf exercise.


Alfonse from the DRC has a clear message to the World Bank—Change your strategy and shift your support to programs that strengthen and benefit poor local communities. He and the members of his network have started to take things into their own hands. Congolese civil society groups are drafting legislation to regulate the informal logging and charcoal sector, which provide millions of poor with income, but is in desperate need of clear and equitable regulation. They have also started an initiative to measure and improve transparency in the forest sector together with international partners. And they are working hard to finally provide a legal basis for communities to manage their own forests—A national community forest law has been drafted with the help of civil society. It is sitting on the desk of the prime minister, ready to be signed. It would, for the first time, put local communities—at least legally—on equal footing with loggers.

“The World Bank needs to use its influence and get our government to sign this law," Alfonse said. Indeed, the World Bank has proven that it has the power to push through all kinds of conditions in its poor client countries—if it chooses to do so. If World Bankers are serious about helping the poor, they will simply not release any further funds to forest programs unless the government passes a law on community forests. It would be a small step for the World Bank, but a big leap forward for the people of the Congo forest.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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