Central Africa's deforestation rate since 1990 has been the lowest of any major forest region in the world. However there are still a number of threats to the health of the Congo rainforest and its residents.
The biggest drivers of deforestation in the Congo rainforest over the past 20 years have been small-scale subsistence agriculture, clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, urban expansion, and mining. Industrial logging has been the biggest driver of forest degradation. However it's important not to understate the impact of logging in the region. Logging roads have opened up vast areas of the Congo to commercial hunting, leading to a poaching epidemic in some areas and a more than 60 percent drop in the region's forest elephant population in less than a decade. Furthermore, logging roads have provided access to speculators and small-holders who clear land for agriculture.
Looking forward, the biggest threats to the Congo rainforest come from industrial logging and conversion for large-scale agriculture. Some environmentalists fear that the Congo could be on the verge of a massive increase in deforestation for palm oil, rubber, and sugar production.
Deforestation in the Congo Basin. Click image to enlarge.
Logging in the Congo Basin has increased significantly as peace has returned to the region. In 2004, encouraged by the World Bank, Congo announced its plans to step up the commercial logging of its rainforest. The timber industry is a major employer in Congo countries and thousands of workers rely on logging companies for basic healthcare and other services. Illegal logging is a significant problem as underpaid bureaucrats look to supplement their incomes by opening restricted areas to cutting.
Since the end of the war in Congo DR, concessions have been granted and the pace of logging in Africa's largest remaining rain forest is picking up
Most of the deforestation in the Congo is caused by local subsistence activities by poor farmers and villagers who rely on forest lands for agriculture and fuelwood collection. Slash-and-burn is commonly used for clearing forest.
Typically, poor farmers and colonists gains access to forest lands by following logging roads, although in the past few years civil strife has driven many Central Africans deep into the rainforest to escape the widespread violence.
Central Africa has been plagued with violence since the mid-90s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have moved through the forests of the Congo, stripping vegetation and devastating wildlife populations. National parks like Virunga -- home to the endangered mountain gorilla -- were looted and park staffers slaughtered. Refugee camps bordering parks added to the pressure on parklands.
The Congo Basin has some of the world richest mineral deposits. Mining operations are poorly monitored and financial returns are prioritized over social impacts and the long-term health effects -- much less to the environmental impact.
The Bushmeat Trade
Today the visitor to many Central African cities can purchase the meat of virtually any forest animal. Demand for bushmeat is driven by the desire for protein, not necessarily the animal source of the protein, the demand for which varies from market to market. In Gabon, McRae reports that annual per capita consumption of bushmeat may reach eight pounds annually.
The availability of bushmeat is made possible by the logging industry whose road construction opens rainforest to hunters and settlers. Hunters make a living by selling bushmeat to passing loggers, traders, and local villagers. The majority of bushmeat is brought to city markets by loggers.
Regional bushmeat hunting is expected is increase as commercial logging expands in the Congo Basin.
Key articles about Congo deforestation
NGO hits out at study for downplaying logging threat in Congo rainforest
(07/23/2013) Global Witness has called in question conclusions reached in a study on logging in the Congo rainforest. The group, which has published a series of investigative reports on abuses by logging companies operating the world's second largest tropical forest, said that a review published Monday in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B '[presents] a misleading and inaccurate picture of the present and growing threats to the Congo Basin rainforest.'
Deforestation rate falls in Congo Basin countries
(07/22/2013) Deforestation has fallen in Congo Basin countries over the past decade despite a sharp increase in the rate of forest clearing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a new study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B as part of a set of 18 papers on the region's tropical forests. The special issue, which was put together by Oxford University's Yadvinder Malhi, covers a range of issues relating to the rainforests of the Congo Basin, including deforestation, the impacts of global change, the history and key characteristics of the region's forests, and resource extraction, among others.
Controversial palm oil project in Cameroon rainforest to resume
(06/06/2013) The Cameroonian government has lifted the suspension on controversial palm oil project in the northwestern part of the Central African nation, reports the AFP.
Activists warn of industrial palm oil expansion in Congo rainforest
(02/21/2013) Industrial oil palm plantations are spreading from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo raising fears about deforestation and social conflict. A new report by The Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), dramatically entitled The Seeds of Destruction, announces that new palm oil plantations in the Congo rainforest will soon increase fivefold to half a million hectares, an area nearly the size of Delaware. But conservationists warn that by ignoring the lessons of palm oil in Southeast Asia, this trend could be disastrous for the region's forests, wildlife, and people.
Controversial palm oil project concession in Cameroon is 89 percent 'dense natural forest'
(02/21/2013) Satellite mapping and aerial surveys have revealed that a controversial palm oil concession in Cameroon is almost entirely covered by "dense natural forest," according to a new report by Greenpeace. The activist group alleges that the concession, owned by Herakles Farms, is under 89 percent forest cover. The U.S.-based corporation intends to build a 70,000 hectare palm oil plantation in a region surrounded by four protected areas, including Korup National Park, but has faced stiff criticism from numerous environmental groups as well as conflict with locals.
Foreign loggers and corrupt officials flouting logging moratorium in the Democratic Republic of Congo
(11/08/2012) In 2002 the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced a moratorium on commercial logging in a bid to save rapidly falling forests, however a new report by Global Witness alleges that industrial loggers are finding a way around the logging freeze. Through unscrupulous officials, foreign companies are abusing artisanal permits—meant for local community logging—to clear-cut wide swathes of tropical forest in the country. These logging companies are often targeting an endangered tree—wenge (Millettia laurentii)—largely for buyers in China and Europe.
NASA satellites catch vast deforestation inside Virunga National Park
(10/03/2012) Two satellite images by NASA, one from February 13, 1999 and the other from September 1, 2008 (see below), show that Virunga National Park is under assault from deforestation. Located in the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the park has been assailed by entrenched conflict between rebels and government forces, as well as slash-and-burn farming, the charcoal trade, and a booming human population.
Rarest gorillas lose half their habitat in 20 years
(10/01/2012) Cross River gorillas and eastern gorillas lost more than half their habitat since the early 1990s due to deforestation, logging, and other human activities, finds a comprehensive new assessment across great apes' range in West and Central Africa.
Deforestation increases in the Congo rainforest
(03/20/2012) Deforestation in the Congo Basin has increased sharply since the 1990s, reports an extensive new assessment of forests in the six-nation region. Released by the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC) and members of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, The State of the Forest finds that the region's annual gross deforestation rate doubled from 0.13 percent to 0.26 percent between the 1990s and the 2000-2005 period. Gross degradation caused by logging, fire, and other impacts increased from 0.07 percent to 0.14 percent on an annual basis. Despite the jump, rates in the Congo Basin remain well below those in Latin America and Southeast Asia, but the region is seen as a prime target for future agroindustrial expansion.
Palm oil, poverty, and conservation collide in Cameroon
(09/13/2011) Industrial palm oil production is coming to Africa, its ancestral home. And like other places where expansion has occurred rapidly, the crop is spurring hope for economic development while generating controversy over its potential impacts. The world's most productive oil seed has been a boon to southeast Asian economies, but the looming arrival of industrial plantations in Africa is raising fears that some of the same detriments that have plagued leading producers Malaysia and Indonesia—deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, conflicts with local people, social displacement, and poor working conditions—could befall one of the world’s most destitute regions. While there is no question that oil palm is a highly lucrative crop that can contribute to economic development, there is also little doubt that conversion of native forests for plantations exacts a heavy toll on the environment. The apparent conflict seems to pit agroindustrial goliaths against greens, with communities falling somewhere in between. But Herakles, a New York-based investment firm planning to construct a 60,000-hectare plantation in the Central African country of Cameroon, says its approach will bridge this gap between economic development and the environment. Social and environmental campaigners are skeptical.
Population density corresponds with forest loss in the Congo Basin
(03/29/2010) Africa's greatest rainforest ecosystem, the Congo Basin, has undergone significant deforestation and degradation during the past century. A new study in the open access journal Tropical Conservation Science examined whether or not there was a connection between population density and forest loss.
Logging roads rapidly expanding in Congo rainforest
(06/07/2007) Logging roads are rapidly expanding in the Congo rainforest, report researchers who have constructed the first satellite-based maps of road construction in Central Africa. The authors say the work will help conservation agencies, governments, and scientists better understand how the expansion of logging is impacting the forest, its inhabitants, and global climate.
Illegal logging threatens Congo's forests, global climate
(04/11/2007) Despite government and World Bank assurances to the contrary. a new report from Greenpeace finds that illegal logging is rampant in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The report, Carving up the Congo, reveals that in spite of a 2002 moratorium on new logging, over 15 million hectares of rainforest have been concessioned to loggers with little regard to the environmental impact or compensation to affected communities.
Congo Rainforest Photos
Deforestation in Africa
Deforestation in Congo countries, 2000-2010
Forest degradation in Congo countries, 2000-2010
Chart: forest loss in the DRC, 2000-2010
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Recommended Reading on the Congo
+ Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo
by Kate Jackson
+ In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz
by Michela Wrong
+ The Last Hero
by Peter Forbath
+ The River Congo
by Peter Forbath
+ Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad
+ Facing the Congo
by Jeffrey Tayler
+ The Troubled Heart of Africa
by Robert B. Edgerton
+ The Forest People
by Colin Turnbull