What the ARTE Documentary didn’t tell us about IFO’s concession in the Republic of Congo: Massive forest fires, a hydropower dam, and mining concessions

The recent documentary “Who is Protecting our Forests?” broadcast on the European channel ARTE last week included a report from IFO’s logging concession in the Republic of Congo. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the ARTE Documentary, but an addition to it.

ARTE’s journalists, Manfred Ladwig and Thomas Reutter, interviewed remote sensing scientist Matthew Hansen at the University of Maryland. In his office, Hansen brings up satellite images of the IFO concession on his computer screen.

Hansen makes the following comments:

“And so we can zoom in to an FSC-certified concession, the IFO concession. The logging roads are beautifully maintained, gorgeous. You can see the extractions of the trees themselves off the side of the logging roads. So this is very, very clear that we’re getting actually the logging signal on parts of these concessions. Not everywhere.

“The different colours represent the different years of the cut, so this was early in the 2000s, this was a couple of years ago, and this was 2016.

“It is amazing, because you’re bringing this human footprint in. When we’re there we see the forest elephants, we see the chimpanzees and gorillas. It’s like you’ve opened up this primeval forest. And all of a sudden you can drive, you know, 100 km/h straight down here to where it took you a few weeks to walk.

“I think that there’s a cascade of effects here, that are changing what was a natural forest ecosystem with low population levels of subsistence farmers and fisher people. And so now you have something pretty irreversible.”

Here’s a screenshot from the documentary, showing the deforestation in red:


Hansen is pointing at an area of logging roads in IFO’s concession. The damage to the forest is clear.

Just above the logging damage is a series of large red areas on Hansen’s map. When I watched the documentary, I wondered what had caused this deforestation.

One of the largest fires ever in the rainforests of Central Africa

On 7 March 2016, the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) team put out an alert about “one of the largest forest fires ever observed in the rainforests of Central Africa”. More than 15,000 hectares of forest burned, with the largest area to the east of Liouesso.

Here’s the GLAD alert map of the fires:


And here’s GLAD’s description of the forests and the damage the fires caused – inside IFO’s concession:

These forests are called Marantaceae forests, named for their dominant perennial herbaceous understory. They are excellent habitat for gorillas who nest on the ground, building a bed out of Marantaceae leaves. However, extreme drought caused by the 2014 – 2016 El Niño event has increased fire risk in Central Africa, particularly for the more open and well-drained Marantaceae forests. It is likely that these fires were human-induced, as multiple instances of forest fire occurred along or near roads. Increasing frequency and severity of drought would possibly lead to more fire in Congo Basin rainforests. Given that Republic of Congo contains some of the largest remaining expanses of intact humid tropical forest and associated large mammal habitat, fires such as those observed in the GLAD alerts represent a threat to the maintenance of this ecosystem.

In March 2016, in response to the fires, IFO announced that, “In order to provide for more resilient fire-prone forests at landscape scales, we have resolved to launch a study, joining forces with UMD GLAD, FSC, WCS, WRI, University of Gembloux, CIRAD and any other interested party.”

Rainforest Alliance’s 2016 audit report states that the forest fires were mainly in an area that was logged in 2011, and in an area logged in 2015. IFO provided Rainforest Alliance with a “mission report following an expert visit” by CIFOR, CIRAD, and GLAD.

“In addition,” Rainforest Alliance’s auditors write, “the burnt zone could not be visited at the time of the audit, which complicated the evaluation of this issue.”

Rainforest Alliance seems remarkably unconcerned that the fires, inside IFO’s FSC certified concession, “represent a threat to the maintenance of this ecosystem”, as the University of Maryland’s GLAD alert noted.

Some questions for FSC’s director general

In August 2017, Arnaud Labrousse wrote to Kim Carstensen, FSC’s director general. Arnaud Labrousse is the pen name of an independent researcher who has been investigating corruption and logging in the Congo Basin for 22 years. He’s the author of Le silence de la forêt. Réseaux, mafias et filière bois au Cameroun and coauthor of Les pillards de la forêt. Exploitations criminelles en Afrique.

Labrouse asked Carstensen when the mission report of the experts’ visit to the burnt forest would be published.

Carstensen did not answer the question. He replied as follows:

Regarding your question about the forest loss and fires, also discussed in the Rainforest Alliance (RA) audit report, as clearly mentioned in your email, an independent investigation by CIFOR, CIRAD, EU JRC, FRMi, FSC, Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, WCS, WRI, WWF and UMD-GLAD was carried out. One important outcome of this working group is the following article, which you may find of interest: http://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/8/12/986/htm#fig_body_display_remotesensing-08-00986-f001

The link that Carstensen gives is to a report titled, “The Potential of Sentinel Satellites for Burnt Area Mapping and Monitoring in the Congo Basin Forests” published in the journal Remote Sensing.

The report is about remote sensing, and is not the mission report of the experts’ visit to the burnt forest.

But the report does confirm that an area of more than 36,000 hectares of forest burned in less than three months. A map from the report shows that the fires took place in areas of forest that had previously been logged:


The report notes that for the fires in the north (the three large areas) “the origin of the fires is adjacent to old logging roads”. The report states that,

The actual impact of the fires on the tree mortality, tree cover density and longer term effects are difficult to assess at this stage. However, a field visit to one of the affected areas three months after the fires showed that the flames had reached the crowns of the trees, some 20–30 m high. The regrowth of the Marantaceae was already clearly visible as illustrated in Figure 11. Marantaceae, being pioneer plants, easily invade new open areas (following natural or anthropogenic disturbances). Doing so, they prevent the regeneration of trees and lead to an opening of the forest canopy cover.


The Liouesso hydropower dam and the mining concessions

In May 2017, the government inaugurated the Liouesso hydropower dam. The dam was constructed, at a cost of US$109 million, inside IFO’s concession.

Rainforest Alliance’s 2014 Certification Assessment notes that the dam was built without an Environmental Impact Assessment, and that “Environmental and social impacts, not in conformance with the FSC standard, have already been reported in 2012.”

Rainforest Alliance’s 2016 audit report states that the area of the dam has been excluded from the certified area, in accordance with FSC’s Policy on the excision of areas from the scope of certification FSC-POL-20-003 (2004) EN.

Rainforest Alliance’s auditors claim that, “IFO continues to apply the FSC standard as part of its activities in the excluded territory.” Rainforest Alliance provides no evidence to back up this claim.

In addition, Rainforest Alliance’s 2016 audit notes that “authorizations for prospecting for gold and exploitation for gold and diamond have been issued by the authorities”, covering a total of almost 50,000 hectares of IFO’s logging concession.

Work on the mining concessions has not started “for the time being”. Rainforest Alliance states in its 2016 audit: “These sectors are therefore to be followed in order to exclude them if the mining operations begin and if they meet the requirements of the exclusion.”

Rainforest Alliance’s auditors write that, “A system is in place to ensure that if IFO receives timber from the excluded areas, it will be segregated and not used as certified (as mentioned in forest and plant chain-of-custody procedures).”

Labrousse asked Carstensen why IFO would receive timber from a mining operation, and how IFO applies FSC standards to an area deforested to make way for a hydropower dam.

Carstensen’s reply dated September 2017, predictably enough, takes the side of the logging company:

Regarding your question related to an overlapping situation between mining permits (or any others land-use affectations that doesn’t belong to the forest concessionaire) and a forest concession (Forest Management Unit – FMU), FSC has developed the attached policy FSC-POL-20-003 (2004) EN (and available in our document center).

Within this frame, as clearly explained in the public audit report available on our website the wood that will come from these areas will not be considered certified because the concessionaire cannot guarantee respect of FSC requirements in these areas. This is considered as acceptable as long as CoC procedures in the factory cover uncontrolled/non-certified material. However, the concessionaire continues to apply the FSC standard as part of its activities in the excluded territory, even if the wood coming from this excised area will not be considered as FSC certified. We invite you to refer to the public version of the audit report, which addresses this question.

Regarding your question about the dam under construction, the concerned areas have been identified and excised from the scope of the FSC certification.

Carstensen could have referred to Rainforest Alliance’s 2014 audit report, which explains that the dam area (about 1,300 hectares) and an area of Série de développement Communautaire which is managed by the state and local communities has been excluded from the FSC certified since 2012. The total excluded area is 48,500 hectares. This all took place under a previous FSC certification, carried out by SGS Qualifor.

Here’s the construction site on Google maps, and a photograph of the completed dam:



In total, the mining concessions, dam construction area, and community development area amount to about 100,000 hectares, or almost 10% of IFO’s concession.

FSC’s friendly ties to the Sassou regime

Perhaps it would be unfair to blame IFO for the actions of the government of the Republic of Congo. It was after all the government that allowed the construction of a hydropower dam without carrying out an environmental impact assessment. And it was the government that awarded a series of mining concessions inside IFO’s logging concession.

FSC’s policy allows companies to exclude of areas from the scope of certification, if they have “used all reasonable efforts to prevent the uncontrolled activity from occurring.”

As Labrousse points out, IFO has been running its concession in the Republic of Congo for the past 19 years, investing in the regime of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Labrousse had another question for Carstensen: “In what sense can it be said that such a company has ‘used all reasonable efforts’ to prevent a regime wholly dependent on rent capture from reawarding large swathes of forest concessions to miners if and when it sees fit to do so?”

Carstensen just ignored the question.

FSC is extremely chummy with Henri Djombo, the Republic of Congo’s Minister of Forest Economy and Sustainable Development from 1997 to 2016. He is currently Minister of State for Agriculture.

In 2014, Djombo was invited to FSC’s General Assembly to speak on the topic of, “Tropical forests in trouble: How can certification be a tool to maintain key tropical forest ecosystems?” Presumably he didn’t mention the mining concessions or the dam in his presentation.


In 2015, FSC signed an agreement with Djombo to “recognize the installation of FSC’s sub-regional coordination office in Brazzaville, to promote the sustainable management of Congolese forests, and to facilitate international market access for FSC-certified woods originating in the country.”

As a 2005 US diplomatic cable (05KINSHASA684_a) explains, Djombo is one of the most powerful ministers in the Republic of Congo. He is very close to president Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled for 34 of the past 39 years. Djombo was one of the war leaders during the civil war in 1997-1999, fighting on Sassou’s side.

The profile of Djombo on FSC’s website makes no mention of Djombo’s close links to Sassou, or his war record. But it does inform us that Djombo is, “A pleasant and open man,” and that he “represents his country as ambassador for forestry and sustainable development.”

Carstensen chose to ignore Labrousse’s question about who wrote FSC’s profile of Henri Djombo.

This is the sixth post in a series based on ARTE’s documentary about FSC: “The exploitation of primary forests: Can an ecolabel stop the forest industry?”
The documentary is available here (and in German here).



  1. This series from a broadcaster is vital for shedding light on the FSC’s lack of transparency and it’s long-standing inability to openly discuss controversial aspects of FSC certification with its many critics.

    One result of the FSCs refusal to face and address controversial aspects of its policies and certification activities is the knock on effects this has on the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR). Legality due diligence evidence for EUTR compliance is often based on the existence or not of FSC certification. I have written responses from EUTR Competent Authorities (government organisations in EU countries responsible for monitoring the EUTR) in several EU countries. They have confirmed that tropical wood products have been imported into the EU based on the existence of FSC certificates at the originating logging concession.

    EUTR legality due diligence exercises are carried out by the same certification bodies – Rainforest Alliance, SGS etc. – the FSC authorises for its own FM and Coc certification programme. Can we trust the legality of any tropical wood products imported in to the EU?

  2. Chris Rhodes,
    can You go in contact with me please about EUTR? (have a look at my blog, unfortunatelly in german language in the moment: http://www.fragen-an-den-fsc.de/. per mail at: office(at)eurobinia.eu?
    i does the same, without any effect. but i want to go deeper in that mystery…and have, as wood trader, just a Proof in EUTR (“simple nonsesence!”)

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