By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Officials in Democratic Republic of Congo are colluding with foreign logging firms to support illegal logging, harming local communities and risking the destruction of the world's second largest forest, a report by a campaign group says.
Derelict ports in Congo's riverside capital Kinshasa are piled high with logs ready to be shipped out to China and Europe as part of the lucrative timber trade.
Much of the timber has been harvested using permits signed by the ministry of environment in direct contravention of Congolese law, advocacy group Global Witness said in the report.
Congo's forest is part of the Congo Basin that spans six countries in the central Africa region covering about 500 million hectares, over 130 million of which is in the Congo. It contains thousands of species and a quarter of the world's remaining tropical forest.
According to the report on Thursday so-called artisanal logging permits - meant only for small scale tree felling by Congolese nationals - are being awarded to foreign firms.
The companies then use industrial methods to cut and export large quantities of wood out of the country, while sidestepping the environmental and social obligations demanded of industrial logging operations.
Attempts to bring order to Congo's chaotic forestry sector have seen a ban on all new industrial logging licenses since 2002, but this has done little to improve the situation according to Colin Robertson, one of the report's authors.
"Basically this is a new system to get around the moratorium... Officials have been giving out artisanal permits to industrial loggers, and it's created a completely chaotic situation in the forests," he told Reuters.
Robertson said that licenses seen by Global Witness - many of them for Chinese or Lebanese companies - had been signed by a former environment minister.
In the heavily forested province of Bandundu at least 146 artisanal logging permits have been issued in the last 2 years according to the report, which also shows evidence of some firms having cut far more than is allowed by artisanal licenses.
Local chiefs are paid off with anything from motor bikes or beer to allow the trees to be felled, while rural communities see no benefit at all, the report states.
Congolese conservationists say the situation is as bad if not worse elsewhere in the country, which is home to 86 million hectares of forest.
Victor Vundu, director of the ministry of environment's legal team said they were working on clarifying and tightening up legislation under a new minister.
"It's not surprising, in a post conflict country where the administration has been really weakened, that the state should be accused of not sufficiently controlling the application of the law," he said.
Industrial logging output from Congo has dropped in recent years and currently stands at around 350,000 m3 per year, as companies say that without far tighter regulation they cannot compete with the illegal market.
Congo signed a contract with Swiss company SGS in 2010 to introduce a traceability program for the logging trade, but they are still waiting for the green light from the government to go ahead, according to Lionel Nardon, head of the SGS project in Congo.
Nardon said they had already identified more than 100,000 m3 of illegal wood in Kinshasa's ports and described the sector as being like the "wild west" in which contraband timber is traded in the port before being transported out by lorries under the cover of darkness.
"The cost (to the Congo) is millions of dollars, and to the forests, it is incalculable," he said.
(Editing by Bate Felix and James Jukwey)