Robbing the Rain Forest

Promising little more than trinkets -- bicycles, a few bars of soap, some bottles of beer -- foreign logging companies working in Congo often broker deals with village chiefs, which allow them to cut down huge swaths of the world's second-largest rain forest.

The trees they fell are worth millions of dollars on the international market and are essential to maintaining the planet's climate, said experts.

In addition to small gifts, companies sometimes agree to build schools or hospitals for local communities. But Greenpeace, which exposed the practice in a report released earlier this month, says companies rarely follow through on those promises and take advantage of people who don't know the true value of the forests in which they live.

In one contract obtained by, Sodefor, a Congo-based company owned by Liechtenstein's NST Group, promises a local chief "two bags of salt, 18 bars of soap, four packets of coffee, 24 bottles of beer [and] two bags of sugar" as a "customary fee to enter said forests."

The company also agreed to pay the chief about 13 cents for every cubic meter of wood cut for export.

"But on the international market, a single meter of this wood sells for several hundred dollars," Greenpeace's Stephan Van Praet told in a phone interview from Brussels.

A single African teak tree can fetch up to $8,000 in Europe.

"When you consider they are talking about 200,000 hectares, that is a lot of money," Van Praet said, referring to the size of a typical logging area.

Some 15 million hectares of rain forest -- an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom -- have been logged in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Greenpeace, most of the companies working that land signed contracts after a 2002 moratorium on logging.

The trees, mostly African teak, are used to make furniture, flooring and doors.

Van Praet described a typical negotiation, which took place in the town of Sange, outside the capital city of Kinshasa. Representatives from the Safbois company and government officials, he said, showed up in the middle of the night and pressured village leaders to turn over access rights to the forest.

"In a traditional culture, companies still need rights to use the forest," said Van Praet. "They came very late, staying until 3 a.m. The people were not really aware of the value of the timber and handed out the rights to log 200,000 hectares for the value of a few trees.

"The way of negotiations is shameful and unfair," he said.

Greenpeace estimates there are about 20 companies logging in Congo. The group warns that if companies continue to fell trees unabated, there could be serious repercussions to Earth's climate. The rain forests of the Congo Basin are second in size only to those found in the Amazon and are vital in maintaining global carbon levels.

"Predictions for future deforestation in Central Africa estimate that by 2050, forest clearance in the Democratic Republic of Congo will release up to 34.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to the U.K.'s carbon dioxide emissions over the last 60 years," Greenpeace wrote in its report "Carving up the Congo."

Greenpeace places some of the blame for the contracts negotiated between companies and village leaders on the World Bank. The organization maintains the bank opened the door for companies to take advantage of local people by creating a system in which companies, not the state, are responsible for development projects in the areas in which they log.

"The World Bank opened a backdoor where companies feel they can go ahead and expand logging operations. … The World Bank is notorious for putting nice things on paper. … It is detached from reality in these countries. If they start a process to restart the private sector and create an environment more comfortable for the private sector, then they need to be responsible to local people," said Susanne Breitkopf, an African forestry expert at Greenpeace.

The bank, however, doesn't see it that way. Congo, it says, is a very poor, very corrupt country that is just beginning to get used to peace and stability after 50 years of civil war.

It believes that companies, provided they are properly regulated, can be a source for good, and in many places can provide better infrastructure and development opportunities than the government can.

"The bank is trying to completely change the way forestry is undertaken in Congo," Giuseppe Topa, the bank's lead forestry specialist for Congo told

Topa said that every concession contract is being reviewed by the World Bank and those that promise sundries, like salt and beer, rather than real development aid, will be canceled. He said a moratorium on new concessions is in place, but it was important to establish regulations now before the ban is eventually lifted.

"Companies have to pay rent for land use. Before the bank's involvement you could rent an area as big as Belgium for $1,500 a year. The government multiplied that rate by more than 100 times," Topa said.

"Companies are the only units with the capacity to do work like build schools. They contribute to local development where the government doesn't have public works departments.

"In the past, companies didn't pay taxes or do social work, they just bought off local elites with money and beer and things of disproportionately low value. They didn't leave anything durable. The fact that they sometimes bring salt and cola is now just a ritual. It is symbolic, but doesn't substitute for larger responsibilities," he said.

Greenpeace lists some 20 companies, including Sodefor, Trans-M Safbois, and Danzer, that have signed "social responsibility contracts" with local chiefs.

Representatives for these companies are notoriously difficult to track down. Breitkopf said it is not uncommon for a multimillion-dollar company to have no other address than a single post office box in Europe. Calls to several companies located in Africa made by were not returned.

Topa described some of these businesses as "shady" and even the secretary-general of the trade organization that represents them to the international community said some were "bad" when it came to meeting their social responsibilities.

"Not all companies face their social obligations 100 percent," said Hervé Bourguignon, secretary-general of the Interafrican Forest Industries Association.

"All companies are not in the same bag regarding the way they face their social obligations. However, Greenpeace very often does not see the ones who are socially responsible. … Greenpeace only goes to those companies that are bad, but many companies are actually facing their social responsibilities."