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The ground suddenly begins to vibrate. The humming grows ever louder. Then, in the dark, the five trucks appear, roaring over the red dirt road. They carefully maneuver around the road’s tight turns through the village.
Their trailers are loaded with large tree trunks that have been stacked on top of each other. The trees had been felled in the rainforest of the Congo basin, one of the largest forest areas on the planet.
The huge tree trunks are transported by truck to the port at Ingende.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
The trucks are carrying the valuable goods to the dock at Ingende, a remote location that is more than eight hours by car from the nearest large city. From Ingende, the trunks are first shipped along the Ruki and Congo Rivers, until they ultimately reach Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there, they continue on to the Atlantic Ocean, for destinations in Asia and Europe. The valuable tropical wood is transported around the world.
If a white person walks through Ingende, the locals constantly yell "Chinois," or "Chinese." They have gotten used to the presence of people from China ever since Chinese companies took over the logging operations in the area. They’re not popular.
"The Chinese don’t respect our culture," says a security officer responsible for international visitors. There are handcuffs hanging from the handlebars of his motorcycle. "If they don’t behave," he jokes.
Indeed, there is little to no sharing of prosperity in a country where raw materials benefit a small elite and are mostly exploited by foreign companies. Large parts of the country are covered with rainforest, making wood one of Congo’s most important resources. After the Amazon, it is the biggest rainforest region on the planet, a green lung of critical importance to the global climate. Chinese trucks have been rolling through it since 2018.
Tree trunks from the rainforest await transport to Kinshasa on the river bank.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
The fact is that no new licenses are supposed to have been issued to timber companies in the Congo for the past 20 years as a result of international pressure on the country. The exploitation had eaten too far into the rainforest, and too much was at stake. But the country is experiencing an economic crisis and desperately needs money, which recently prompted the environment minister to announce plans for lifting the moratorium. Soon, even more companies could be descending on the Congo to exploit its forest resources. But numerous conservation organizations are fiercely opposed.
In the area around Ingende, it is clear that timber companies are operating in a lawless space. But the rainforest inhabitants here aren’t just watching passively any longer – they’re winning back control over their forest, with help from modern technology.
Labelle Bokele and Papy Bonkale stand next to a giant tree stump. They want to show how their small rebellion works. They open a plastic case, take out a white disk and a black box. It’s a satellite receiver, which they attach to their Blackberry smartphone. The system, called ForestLink, is provided and maintained by the Rainforest Foundation, a British organization.
Labelle Bokele (left) and Papy Bonkale (right) demonstrate the ForestLink system.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
The smartphone provides the users with precise GPS data in the middle of the rainforest, where few have mobile phones because of the lack of reception.
Bokele and Bonkale then take a tape measure out of their small suitcase and check the diameter of the tree stump. They take photos – important evidence. As forest observers, the two document suspected misconduct by Chinese companies. An app then enables them to input the evidence in their smartphone and organize it into different categories.
They report violations of the rules using this app.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
They normally do this within the logging companies’ concessions, but reporters with DER SPIEGEL and the German public broadcaster ARD did not have access to these areas during their joint reporting trip. Congolese law, however, allows residents to move freely and collect evidence. They often go early in the morning, under the cover of dusk, to avoid a confrontation with the foremen.
"It’s the lack of respect that makes me angry," says Bokele. "One time, we documented how the company was felling trees that were still very small. They are destroying the livelihoods of our children by doing this."
In theory, at least, the timber companies are required to adhere to a number of rules. They are only allowed to log certain areas and only larger, old trees, so that the forest can regenerate. They are also banned from felling trees on slopes and near villages, rivers or springs.
But the reality is usually different. Experts believe that a large part of the wood exports from Congo were felled illegally. The government only rarely carries out inspections, and high-ranking officials are often involved in dubious deals. The Chinese company that became active in Ingende in 2018 has also landed in the headlines due to such deals.
Three years ago, shortly before the presidential election, the Environment Ministry suddenly withdrew the licenses of several companies. A few days later, the licenses came into possession of the family of a famous Congolese general nicknamed "Tango Four." According to an organization called Global Witness, the family members then sold their entire company shortly thereafter, along with its concessions, to the Chinese, in a lucrative deal.
And a violation of the logging moratorium, according to many non-governmental organizations. But their outrage has been in vain. To this day, much of the timber industry is in Chinese hands, including in the Ingende region, even if the company names have changed multiple times on paper. The government recently announced plans to evaluate all disputed forest concessions in Congo. But many residents remain skeptical – and are instead fighting back on their own.
Two years ago, they struck a spectacular blow. Joseph Bolongo has clear memories of that day, May 28, 2019, a Thursday. Bolongo works for Gashe, an NGO which trains and supervises the forest observers.
The Ruki River is the area's lifeline. It provides a transport route, a water source, a place for washing and a fishing ground.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
That week, his phone rang constantly with calls from angry residents from the village of Loselinga. "They said that the Chinese had suddenly come and begun to cut down the trees. They wanted us to come quickly," Bolongo recalls. He responded immediately.
Bolongo alerted several authorities, including the province’s Environment Ministry. An ad-hoc mission was immediately organized. They climbed into a speedboat with uniformed police officers and raced along the Ruki River. Bolongo recorded the mission on his camera – it’s a kind of trophy for him, a sliver of hope that things can also go differently in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When they arrived, the inspectors discovered a mobile jetty for transporting wood away, with heavy machinery on and behind it, as well as astonished-looking Chinese foremen. They had made themselves at home in the forest, where they had set up tents and a cooking area.
Officers found a jetty used for the removal of timber and heavy machinery that was located outside the area of the concession held by the Chinese company.Foto: GASHE
According to Bolongo, the company was operating far outside its permitted concession, in an area in which only locals could log on a small scale. But bulldozers had already cut swaths of devastation into the forest.
After a loud confrontation, the police led a Chinese foreman away in handcuffs. He appeared before a court soon after in the city of Mbandaka. The evidence seemed overwhelming.
But the trial had a different outcome than Bolongo and his allies had hoped for. First, the accused was released on bail, then the case was dismissed with reference to a fine that had purportedly already been paid and a lack of evidence. Observers suspect political pressure motivated that ruling. Bolongo and his fellow campaigners are still considering whether to appeal.
A Chinese foreman ended up in court. In the end, he got acquitted, with the court referring to a fine it alleged had already been paid.Foto: GASHE
He nevertheless describes the trial as a milestone. It was the first time that civil society succeeded in bringing a timber company to court. The case made headlines, and there were reports that the company had difficulties unloading its wood on the global market.
The company then changed its name and, through a further deal, the concession once again landed in new hands. But the nationality remained the same, and suspected violations of the rules continued to be violated.
Joseph Bolongo educates residents of the forest about their rights.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
Forest monitors continue to document these suspected violations week after week. "There aren’t enough government inspectors in Congo," says project leader Bolongo. "That’s why the inhabitants themselves are taking part in the monitoring. They know the areas well. When they discover something illegal, they pass it on to the state authorities."
DER SPIEGEL has a list of the alerts submitted by the forest observers since 2018. There are 81 pertaining to the Chinese concession in the Ingende area, including 12 suspected cases of illegal logging and 31 suspected violations against the appropriate labelling of felled tree trunks. These markings are important, because they enable people to check whether the companies are abiding by the agreed-upon upper limit. Monitors have filed over 400 ForestLink reports in the Congo as a whole.
Labelle Bokele has been visiting the undergrowth regularly for two years now. "The Chinese company has no consideration for us and our forest, they are even felling trees on our gravesites," she says. "They log trees that grub live on. I once saw them cut down a tree like that and just left it lying. That makes me angry." Grub are an important food source for the forest inhabitants, an indispensable source of protein.
Papy Bonkale, her companion on these missions, has experienced similar situations. "It makes me happy when we sound an alarm," he says. "It can ultimately lead to an end of the violations, at least gradually. That’s what we want to achieve."
Labelle Bokele measures a tree stump.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
The struggle may be unequal, but residents nevertheless sometimes manage to come to an amicable agreement with the timber company, using the evidence they have collected as leverage. If the violations get out of hand, they block the road and, by doing so, force a solution.
At some point, they hope, there might ultimately be a large court case. But in a country like Congo, where justice is mostly a question of money, that remains a vague hope. "The authorities don’t respond at all," says forest observer Bokele. The case of the arrested Chinese man was simultaneously a sliver of hope and a disappointment for the residents.
The forest observers use satellite technology to combat illegal logging.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
Sometimes the activists even find themselves becoming leaders in the fight against deceitful local leaders. This happened to Bonkale when he sent an alert through his satellite receiver and mobile phone a few months ago about an abandoned school next to the path with large gaps in its walls. The building is actually part of a social plan that the Chinese company needs to fulfil. Following Bonkale’s report, the authorities began pursuing the matter, and it ended up emerging that the timber company had paid but that the money had been embezzled by local officials. The village chief suspected in the case wound up in jail.
Children should actually be learning here, but the funds for this school were embezzled.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
Meanwhile, the residents’ fight continues. In addition to seeking to break the companies’ dominance through apps, they are also trying to win back the forest through the community forests concept.
A narrow path leads through meters-high trees and undergrowth until a sudden gap emerges in the rainforest. Around a dozen huts stand in the clearing forming the villages of Bofekalasumba and Inganda.
Women carry baskets on their backs and men holding machetes emerge from the forest or disappear into the thick greenery. Many are from the indigenous pygmy ethnic group, which has mixed with the immigrant Bantu over the centuries.
The cultivation of cassava is of central importance: The inhabitants eat the plant's leaves, the roots are pounded into flour, which is them used to make fufu, a dish similar to polenta.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
In recent years, a Chinese company and other firms logged in their vicinity, and locals had hoped that some of that prosperity would trickle down to them. But the hopes never came to fruition. "We couldn’t resist, even when the companies only had to pay $5 per cubic meter,” says Inganda village leader Nico Boketa.
The companies can collect up to 900 euros per cubic meter for tropical timber on the European market. "And they have destroyed our forests with heavy machinery, including the small trees," says Boketa.
But that’s now a thing of the past, at least in Inganda and Bofekalasumba, where locals have convinced the Congolese authorities to place their forest under protection. No business can log here anymore. Only the inhabitants can cut trees on their own and use their forest to make money, albeit solely on a small scale.
Residents of Inganda celebrate the official recognition of their community forest.Foto: Arsène Mpiana Monkwe / DER SPIEGEL
Joseph Bolongo and his organization Gashe monitor whether the residents are complying. "The people here are dependent on the forest," he says. "It’s their life. If they damage the forest, they feel the consequences themselves. It is in their interest to manage it sustainably."
The idea of a community forest is a kind of counterproposal to the fenced-off conservation that is often practiced elsewhere in Africa. In many conservation areas, inhabitants were essentially driven out and lost their livelihoods. The community forests, on the other hand, are meant to prevent industrial exploitation by foreign companies and turn inhabitants themselves into conservationists.
Things in Bofekalasumba and Inganda follow a set rhythm: the slash-and-burn clearing of small forest areas for the cultivation of corn and cassava, the region’s main foods. The cutting of wood for firewood. People lead their lives here according to centuries-old rules. Some areas are allocated for agriculture, whereas others remain untouched.
The idea of a community forest is relatively new in Congo. There are only a few dozen, and most are still in their infancy. Critics worry that inhabitants will themselves lose sight of conservation and begin overexploiting the forest.
Villager Nadiana Bekombe disagrees, though. "The forest allows us to grow food, catch fish and hunt game,” she says. "That’s why we are protecting it. We will not allow any more adventures,” she says. "In any case, no company will come onto our land. They only come and cheat us!”
But the danger persists: In another community forest, almost 100 kilometers south of Bofekalasumba, workers recently arrived with machinery. Workers from an international logging company. According to observers, they began to build forest roads and mark trees – presumably with the intention of logging there illegally.
As usual, the residents fought back the way they know how: They collected GPS data and called in the authorities. Here in the green lungs of Africa, people have had enough.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.