The Democratic Republic of Congo is a massive country, with a land area the size of Alaska and Texas combined. It's also home to a large part of the Congo Basin rainforest, a habitat for countless species and a crucial absorber of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But illegal and uncontrolled logging represent major threats to this critical ecosystem. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a massive country, the size of Alaska and Texas combined. It's also home to a large part of the Congo Basin rain forest. That is the world's second largest after the Amazon.
It is the habitat for countless species, and crucial to mitigating climate change, as it soaks up atmospheric carbon dioxide.
One of the major threats comes from illegal and uncontrolled logging.
In partnership with the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.
Pygmies have lived in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo for generations. After five years of campaigning, the village of Lokolama became one of the first indigenous communities in the country to be given titles to their ancestral land.
In March 2019, the whole village celebrated when more than 20,000 acres of forest was handed over to them to sustainably manage. But the joy and dancing was short lived. Fast-forward to today and village elder, Joseph Bonkile, says that the threat of climate change and widespread logging is ruining that dream.
Joseph Bonkile (through translator):
We will die and lose everything. Our children will suffer. They will die from the effects of rising temperatures and climate change. We must protect the forest from logging.
The government of Congo DRC has a forest code that determines which trees can be cut and how many, but there is little enforcement.
Despite international and national laws designed to protect the rain forest, from 2001 to 2018, Congo DRC lost 6 percent of all the forest in the country, an area similar to the size of Mississippi.
Congolese environmental activist Irene Wabiwa accuses logging companies of abusing the system.
Irene Wabiwa Betoko:
Many companies are using fraud to legalize what is not legal.
What is happening on the ground is that these companies, they are coming, using their own power and money. They get permits and they falsify or modify it to get more volume of timber that they will cut.
So, why do you think the government is not doing more? Who is responsible for this, and why are they not doing enough?
Irene Wabiwa Betoko:
Governance in Congo is very poor. Corruption is very high. So, when you have power, you have money, you can do what you want in the forest sector.
Greenpeace has campaigned against illegal logging for many years. It argues timber consumed globally should be traced to its origin.
Normally, a system of marks ensures that each log that is cut down is accounted for. The marks mirror those at the stump and also have information about the location where the tree was cut. But Greenpeace says, much of the timber leaving Congo is cut without permission and manages to reach the final destination with counterfeit marks or permit.
We joined environmental activist Etienne Kasiraca on a fact-finding mission deep into the forest. Many of Congo's forests are only accessible by river boat.
The reason why so many African parks have been spared of logging is because the infrastructure is so poor that getting the timber out becomes very expensive. But this is not the case here in this part of the DRC, because the Congo River is such a good means of transportation.
We arrived at a concession operated by the Congolese-registered Bakri Bois Corporation. Kasiraca decided to visit the site now, as he had heard that the timber workers were on strike, and we could enter the concession. These places are normally guarded and off-limits to visits from environmentalists and reporters.
Licenses and paperwork are the only way to prove the timber is legal, and that loggers are not chopping down trees that are too old, too young or endangered. But Kasiraca says he has rarely seen a company operate with a valid license in this area.
Do you think a lot of this is going on in the Congolese forest?
Etienne Kasirca (through translator):
Yes, it's a major problem, not an isolated case. In other areas, it's even worse than here. The forest is being pillaged. No one respects the law.
What do you know about the paperwork this corporation has, for instance? Do they have a license to be cutting this wood?
Etienne Kasirca (through translator):
They had a license to log here issued in 2018. It was valid for that year, but has now expired, but they still continue logging regardless.
The logs are tied together, forming makeshift rafts and floated to the capital, Kinshasa. This is the port of Kinkole, one of the many hubs in and around Kinshasa used for processing rain forest timber from the Congo Basin.
Many of these trees facing the chopping block are hundreds of years old. Local authorities check the mark on the timber to see that it corresponds with the right permit.
The log number, the owner's name or initials, the month and the log number, correct?
Barouti represents 300 small-scale loggers known as artisanal loggers. He says, on average, people like him only cut down around 150 trees per year, while large-scale industrial loggers cut down tens of thousands.
Under Congolese law, small-scale loggers are given a special permit to work in their local forests. But foreign companies are using these licenses to log on an industrial scale. Next to this port and visible from the air, there is a large timber mill operated by a Chinese company, where hundreds of logs piled up. We were not allowed to film inside.
Barouti (through translator):
The Chinese logging company has pushed down prices so much that artisanal loggers like us can't compete. We can each only afford to float our logs down river once a year, while the Chinese company brings in two full ferries of wood each week.
Widespread logging of the Congo Basin continues to go unchecked, and this trend of deforestation is set to go on, with irreversible consequences.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thank you, Monica.
And, for the record, the story was filmed before the pandemic.