By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's biggest logging companies are systematically violating national laws to plunder Congo's forests, undermining efforts to protect the world's second largest rainforest, a campaign group said on Wednesday.
London-based Global Witness said in a report that none of Congo's 87 million euros ($97 million) of timber production appeared to comply with international timber trade laws.
Over half of the Congo basin's 500 million hectares of forest are in Congo whose forests boast the fifth greatest diversity of animals and plants in the world.
Logging in Congo has long been plagued by corruption and weak oversight. In response, the government imposed a moratorium
in 2002 on all new industrial logging licenses.
However, Global Witness said that the degradation of Congo's forests due to illegal logging is getting worse, threatening endemic species like the forest elephant and the Okapi, a rare giraffe-like creature with zebra stripes.
"We knew that (Congo) logging companies were breaking the law, but the extent of illegality is truly shocking," Global Witness campaign leader Alexandra Pardal said in a statement.
The report analyzes the findings of independent monitoring inspections of 28 of the country's 57 industrial logging concessions between 2011 and 2014. Each inspection turned up illegal activities, including logging outside of permitted areas, overexploitation and the falsification of records, the report says.
The report accused Congo's two biggest loggers, Congo-based SIFORCO, and SODEFOR, a subsidiary of Nordsudtimber in Liechtenstein, of being among the worst offenders.
In an emailed statement to Reuters, SODEFOR said it has always complied with Congolese law and accused Global Witness of seeking to end industrial logging activity in Congo. SIFORCO did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The report also faults the United States and European Union countries for not enforcing recently-passed laws banning imports of illegally harvested timber. The U.S. and EU countries imported 19.8 million euros' worth of Congolese timber in 2014, according to customs data.
China accounted for 65 percent of Congolese timber exports last year, valued at over 56 million euros. The Africa Progress Panel, chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said last year Africa was losing about $17 billion every year because of illegal logging.
(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)