FSC’s flagship African logger, CIB-Olam, needs World Bank subsidy – to start farming in its concessions

One of Africa’s biggest, longest-standing and most controversial FSC certified logger, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), has appeared regularly on FSC-Watch. Praised by the likes of Scott Poynton of TFT, CIB’s boosters have consistently ignored the growing evidence for what is now becoming grimly apparent; that the company’s timber production is fundamentally unsustainable, and will likely eventually lead to widespread destruction of some of the Congo Basin’s most valuable forests. The evidence grew stronger this month, with news that the World Bank has stepped in to provide funding to increase the company’s agricultural production.

FSC certified since 2006, CIB  has for some represented the hopes for the concept of ‘sustainable forest management’ (i.e, industrial logging) in the Congo Basin. But, as if through some FSC curse, each round of certifications has shortly been followed by news that casts serious doubts about the company’s sustainability. Now the future of the 1.5 million hectares of rainforest inside the company’s concessions in the north of the Republic of Congo looks even more perilous.

CIB has perhaps used more advanced ‘forest management’ techniques than most other African loggers. However, in common with many other Congo Basin loggers, there has never been any convincing evidence that the company’s reliance on selective exploitation of a few prime ‘old-growth’ export timber  species, such as sapele, is sustainable. Put simply, the best woods do not regrow fast enough.There is not much market demand in such remote places for the ‘lesser-known species’ of trees left behind once all the best timber has gone.

Sustainably exhausted?

In 2009, the company was forced to lay-off around 700 workers in its (FSC certified) 296,000 hectare Kabo concession, because of growing economic losses. As the older of  CIB’s three concessions became exhausted, the company opened a large and controversial new sawmill in its newest, and unexploited, Loundougou concession, adjacent to the globally important Nouabale-Ndoki National Park.

In 2011, TFT’s Scott Poynton praised CIB’s “dramatic progress in adopting sustainable practices”, but two weeks later, CIB admitted that timber production had plummeted. A few weeks later still, CIB announced plans to ‘diversify’ away from timber and into agricultural production. Far from being a long-term sustainable forestry operation, FSC’s African poster-boy is starting to look like it is following the same path as most logging concessions further to the west in Africa – unsustainable mining of the highest value timbers followed by complete forest clearance for agriculture.

Forest damage, and disappearing concessions…

Even without farming, doubts have continued to grow about the environmental impact of CIB’s logging activities. A paper by researchers from the University of Michigan has indicated that forest damage in logging concessions pursuing supposedly ‘sustainable forest management’ (SFM) in the Republic of Congo is even worse than for those that aren’t. The research found that “SFM policy and certified timber markets are associated with increased forest cover change, this suggests that the growing global demand for legal and certified timber may have unexpected consequences for intact tropical forest ecosystems.

For reasons that were never made public, the 2013 re-certification of two of the three CIB concessions (at Pokola and Kabo) was ‘suspended’ in 2014 – though (also not explained) reinstated in March 2015. Correspondence seen by FSC-Watch indicates that there had been an attempt to combine the two concessions into one (possibly because the Kabo conccession was in effect moribund), though there was no legal basis for doing so. The single Public Summary certification report covers both concessions, even though they are supposedly separate forest ‘management’ units, possibly in contravention of FSC’s rules. The pretence of Kabo continuing to be a functioning and certifiably sustainable forestry concession may be linked to eligibility rules for World Bank funding. It could as well have something to do with the issuing by the Congolese government of several gold and diamond prospecting licences inside the Kabo concession to a company known as “Beveraggi Group Congo Mining SA”, the owners of which have not been identified.

Poynton_and_Djombo (1)

Scott Poynton of TFT, left, (with Henri Djombo, Forest Minister of the Republic of Congo, right), said CIB was “a living breathing example that timber production does not have to be synonymous with the destruction of tropical forests”

International aid money for Olam’s crops

Following CIB’s 2011 announcement, planting of agricultural crops in the company’s concessions has grown rapidly. According to  a Congolese governent report, around 1,200 hectares are already being planted. In October 2015, the World Bank agreed to provide US$1 million (10% of its Congo ‘Forest and Economic Diversification Project’) to support the planting of crops such as banana and cocoa by CIB. Quite why CIB should need such aid funding is one of the many questions that the subsidy raises; its parent company, Singapore-based agricultural trader, Olam, made a gross profit of more than $700m in 2014. The company has already secured up to $40 million for cocoa development in northern Congo from the French government’s development agency, AFD.


All smiles for the World Bank’s Julian Lee (right), Olam’s Christian Schwartz (cente) and Congo’s Jacques Ossissou, as the Bank and Congolese government agree to give CIB one million dollars

Normally in Congo, the conversion of logging concessions to non-forest uses such as agricultural production is prohibited. However, a little-applied legal provision allowing ‘community development’ activities within forestry concessions has been invoked to justify CIB’s ‘diversification’ and expansion of farming.

Who will really benefit?

Drawn by the promise of jobs and (albeit limited) health and education facilities, the population in and around CIB’s concessions has burgeoned from a few hundred in the 1970s to several tens of thousands today. Despite efforts by conservationists such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, many of these new inhabitants have, unsurprisingly, depended heavily on hunting in the concessions’ environs for their basic protein and subsistence. Along with commercial poaching for distant bushmeat markets, this has led to what a 2002 World Bank report described as a “decimation” of the wildlife within a 20km radius of CIB’s main logging base at Pokola.

Many poor people in northern Congo will no doubt welcome the chance to earn an income from farming, when the benefits from logging have been so poor. However, the law does not place a restriction on how much of a supposedly permanent forest concession can be designated for ‘Community Development’, nor does it state exactly what is meant by the term ‘Community Development’.  There has been no indication that the farmers being provided with new planting stock, with World Bank funding, are being granted any tenure to the land they will be working – indeed, this is probably not legally possible within designated logging concessions. They could therefore effectively be labourers on company-leased land, producing agricultural commodities which Olam will trade.

Over the years, CIB has benefited from many millions of dollars of aid from donors such as the World Bank and the governments of Germany and Swizerland in order to implement ‘sustainable forest management’. Now, with World Bank support, this ‘sustainable forestry’ is giving way to agricultural production.

The conversion of this so far limited area to primarily agricultural purposes does not necessarily represent non-compliance with the FSC’s currrent Principles and Criteria, of which 6.9 states that certified companies:

“shall not convert natural forest to plantations, nor natural forests or plantations on sites directly converted from natural forest to non-forest land use, except when the conversion: a) affects a very limited portion of the area of the Management Unit…”

This does, though, raise questions as to what is meant by the term “very limited portion”.

Olam’s ‘cappuccino forestry’: coffee, cocoa, plenty of sweeteners – just add hot air.

In CIB’s diversification of business away from its failing timber supplies,it  is also venturing into new areas. Under a scheme (opens pdf, 2.7Mb)  being proposed jointly  by the Congolese government and CIB-Olam to the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, CIB would also be able to sell forest carbon credits to the Bank’s Carbon Fund. This putative REDD project covers the whole of northern Congo, over 12 million hectares, including all of CIB’s concessions.

The scheme proposes to generate around 12 million tonnes of carbon emissions reduction credits, worth up to $60 million, by supposedly reducing the damage to forests done by loggers, installing cocoa production and agroforestry where farmers are using ‘slash-and’burn’ farming, and increasing the area of forest under conservation. Given that so much of the area in question is FSC-certified, observers might question why it now seems necessary to adopt ‘reduced impact’ logging techniques.

The idea for this massive REDD project seems to have grown out of a much smaller scheme  cooked up by Olam several years ago, to generate REDD income from its fourth concession, at Pikounda-Nord. At 94,000 hectares, the Pikounda-Nord area is fairly small, surrounded by other company’s concessions and a national park, inaccessible, and a long way downstream from CIB’s main facilities. The company acquired it as a trade-off for giving up a smaller area of one of its concessions to provide an extension to the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. It has not been logged, and has probably never been economically viable. It should have been included in the recently established Ntokou-Pikounda National Park. Arguably, any carbon credits generated from the ‘protection’ of this area are ‘hot air’ credits, as there seems to be little immediate threat to it, and therefore no real additional emissions reductions.

A recent Olam press release reports that the World Bank has signed a  Letter of Intent to maybe buy its carbon credits in the future, though the proposal was rejected when presented to the Carbon Fund in July 2014. One of the problems with it is that there is no indication of exactly how the total number of carbon credits has been calculated, or how the very vaguely defined REDD interventions might serve to bring about carbon emissions reductions. Whilst CIB’s operations are not lacking in froth, for the time-being at least, they will probably not be benefiting from hot-air sales.

Congo’s Forest Minister Henri Djombo says in the Olam press release that “Working with CIB on the ground, we have been able to redefine industrial logging in the context of climate change, and drive innovation in sustainable agroforestry”. Perhaps to the surprise of some who believe in CIB as an example of ‘sustainable forest management’ (and certainly of no surprise to those that don’t), this “redefinition” of logging seems mostly to consist of the cessation of sustainable forestry due to forest exhaustion, and the start of farming and other income-generating activities.


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