Roads to Ruin

Illegally cut mahogany log

Illegal sawpit logging in Uganda

It is possible that the environmental challenge in Africa that will have the biggest impact on the rest of the world is the degradation of the Congo Basin rainforest.  According to Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, in her 2009 book The Challenge for Africa, the cutting down of trees in the Congo Basin has already led to a 5 – 15% drop in rainfall in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., and as much as 25% just north of the Black Sea.

This forest is one of the biggest lungs for the planet, ranked up there with the Amazon basin, the boreal forests of the northern latitudes and the oceans with their photosynthesizing algae and phytoplankton.  In addition to the oxygen it provides, it is an incredible force for stabilizing weather patterns throughout Africa.  Remove the forest, and the Sahara will get a lot bigger.  It is also a hotbed of diversity.  30% of the 10,000 known species of plants in the forest are endemic (occurring only in the Congo Basin), 10% of the world’s bird species can be found in the basin, and over 900 species of butterflies bring a splash of color to the deep shadows.  There are also 400 species of mammals including 3 of the 4 species of great apes.

As is so often the case, the environmental impacts are snowballing.  The extraction industries, both timber and mining, punch roads through the forest to access their operations.  This gives much deeper access to bushmeat hunters, slash-and-burn cultivators, and rebel militias.  It also creates “edge habitat” in areas that were once core forest, changing the mix of species.  One quarter of this forest is already under timber concessions, and more than that is essentially ungovernable and is under the control of militias.

The bushmeat trade in the Congo Basin has exploded.  No longer just a way for the locals to feed themselves and their families, it is now an enormous commercial enterprise.  Over one million tons of bushmeat are taken from the forest each year, with 13,000 pounds of that going to the U.S. and Europe every month.  There is also still a strong illegal pet trade going on, with chimpanzees and gorillas being stolen out of the forest and exported.

It is difficult to know if political stability in the Congo Basin would help or hurt conservation of the forest.  On the one hand, the dangers of the region have probably kept some development from happening.  On the other hand, anybody with the money to pay off the local warlord can essentially do whatever they want in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the richest places in the world in terms of natural resources.

In the post-Copenhagen discouragement, there have been signs of a drop in carbon offsetting markets.  Regardless of one’s stance on climate change, there could be disastrous consequences for the Congo forests if carbon markets collapse.  Carbon emissions trading, and REDD (Reduction in Emissions through Destruction and Degradation) in particular, give incredible incentive not to cut down trees.  According to Maathai, the DRC alone could generate as much as $200 million per year on the carbon market.

Uganda only holds a small sliver of the great Congo rainforest – an accidental piece of land in the Semiliki River valley squeezed between the Rwenzori Mountains and the border of DRC that has been protected as the Semliki Valley National Park.  Uganda is an example of what can happen when forest destruction goes unchecked.  Uganda only has about 14% of its original forest cover left, and in this country where over 90% of the population relies on charcoal and fuelwood for all of its energy needs, it is expected that wood will need to be imported within the next 10 – 20 years.  The economic impacts of that will directly hit those least able to absorb the additional costs.

The good news is that the rainforest of the Congo Basin is still largely intact.  With the right protections now, it can remain that way.  Most of the companies that are extracting resources are from western nations, so people around the world can apply pressure to make sure that these operations act responsibly.  We can purchase certified sustainably-harvested wood, keep our cell phones and computers longer (many of the minerals mined in the DRC, including coltan, are used in electronics), and try to educate anybody who thinks it is a good idea to keep a chimp or other wild animal as a pet.  We can also support the establishment of roadless areas around the world, because we really don’t need to make it any easier for poachers and illegal loggers to access these threatened resources.

If you are interested in learning more about the Congo Basin Rainforest, here are some initiatives that are trying to protect it:

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

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2 Responses to Roads to Ruin

  1. Chris Lang says:

    Hi Mark – This is an interesting statement: “In the post-Copenhagen discouragement, there have been signs of a drop in carbon offsetting markets. Regardless of one’s stance on climate change, there could be disastrous consequences for the Congo forests if carbon markets collapse. Carbon emissions trading, and REDD (Reduction in Emissions through Destruction and Degradation) in particular, give incredible incentive not to cut down trees.” I have two questions and an observation:

    1. Is there any evidence that carbon markets are (or were before the post-Copenhagen discouragement set in) protecting forests in the Congo Basin?

    2. Markets have a tendency to collapse from time to time. Hedge funds are already betting on the carbon market collapsing. The carbon market is already fiendishly complicated. Carbon derivatives are complicated, non-transparent and almost impossible to regulate (with more than a slight similarity to sub-prime). Is it really sensible to rely on something so inherently unpredictable and unstable to protect forests?

    Carbon markets allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue – meaning that runaway climate change becomes almost inevitable.

    • Mark Jordahl says:

      Hello Chris,

      Thanks for your great thoughts here. I just spent some time on your site ( and it seems like a very useful resource. I will definitely add it to my blogroll and start following it.

      I share a lot of your skepticism around carbon markets. In some ways it does smack of a “get out of jail free” card, and allows the rich countries/companies to continue doing business as usual with a minimal additional cost if there are no requirements to reduce their emissions overall.

      Another issue that I don’t see much discussion about is that we are, in a way, paying poorer nations not to develop. My time living in Uganda has shown me that this country needs more business and more industry to develop economically. The powerful corporations and countries around the world have a lot to gain by keeping countries in Africa underdeveloped, because it keeps the playing field uneven in negotiations for resources. Markets are also, as you wrote, volatile. Five years ago, small farmers here were planting vanilla like crazy, often to the exclusion of food crops, with visions of getting rich in a single harvest season. Then the vanilla market crashed and everybody wished they had planted food instead.

      At the same time, this seems like the first real global flow of money (particularly private money) from rich nations to poor nations as an incentive for conservation. The article “REDD Realities” ( on your site said “If financed through public funds, the reduced emissions from deforestation will at least be additional to the meager emissions cuts proposed.” I just don’t see this happening through public funds (although a number of European countries will likely do their best). In the United States, I don’t think the political will is there once you combine the state of our economy with the startling decline in the percentage of people who even accept that climate change is human-caused.

      In your comment, you wrote “Carbon markets allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue – meaning that runaway climate change becomes almost inevitable.” Is there any mechanism that DOESN’T allow it to continue unchecked? The fact of the matter is that nothing global is binding. The U.S. threw out the Geneva Convention so we could torture people in Iraq. Very few, if any, countries have held themselves to their Kyoto commitments. A coup or significant change in leadership anywhere in the world means the new government will decide which international agreements to honor and which ones not to.

      Even the ecological debt repayment that the “REDD Realities” article talked about seems like an uphill battle. You would know better than me, but is there any consensus on a reasonable amount to pay? The article also got into the concept of how much it would cost to compensate tropical countries to not clear forests for palm oil plantations. The problem with the amount they stated is that once the 750 million hectares of suitable forest land were converted, the price would be much lower because of the increased supply. So how do you decide which price point to use for publicly-funded compensation?

      The REDD Realities article talked a lot about indigenous people being the best stewards of the land, and that securing their land rights is actually a more effective avenue for protecting the forest. I agree that that is often the case with true forest-based indigenous communities. However, here in Uganda and, I would imagine, in other parts of Africa, it is no longer the forest cultures who live in or around the forests. The Batwa (Pygmies) in western Uganda were evicted from the forests decades ago, and it is now Bantu agriculturalists who own the land in and around forest blocks. This sets up a constant battle to prevent encroachment on the forests. And, in fact, the way the original land laws were set up here, in order to claim ownership of the land you had to “improve it” (i.e. cut down the trees and plant crops). The best stewards of the forests (the Batwa) were not allowed to stay on their land because they weren’t “using” it.

      Re-reading my post, I do think I overshot when I said “disastrous” and “incredible incentive.” Carbon markets really weren’t the point of the post. However, I do think REDD is an improvement over the Kyoto Protocol, which actually incentivized countries to cut down their original forests and plant quick-growing plantations in order to qualify for carbon credits. Regarding the relationship of forest carbon to climate, the science is way over my head, and it doesn’t seem like anybody else really has it figured out either. I come at all of this from the perspective of how to save forests rather than how to reduce CO2, and carbon credits seem to be providing more incentive to save forests than anything I have seen in the past.

      But this finally brings me to your first question about whether there have been benefits in Congo from carbon markets. I would find it hard to use the word “evidence” in any conversation relating to DRC. The reality is that the country is a mess, and it is difficult to get accurate information out of it. Obviously, that brings into question the efficacy of any offsetting project at this point. I was mostly referring to future potential if the country stabilizes.

      The first offsetting projects in Congo have just gotten off the ground in the last year, so it remains to be seen whether there will be real benefits to the forest. One of the first is a project that is subsidizing the costs of fuel-efficient charcoal stoves ( I see stove projects as some of the most important ones happening here in Africa and in other places as well, since it doesn’t do any good to plant forests if you are still cutting them down just as quickly to cook with. The first REDD project has also been announced ( There is also a good interview of Nadine Laporte from about a year and a half ago about her work in Congo at

      Here in Uganda, there has also been a major shift in people’s attitudes towards the forests now that there is a sense that they are valuable. Unfortunately, ecosystem services just hasn’t been a compelling argument even though the country is over 80% agriculturalists and relies completely on rainfall and other benefits of the forest. Showing that keeping or planting trees can translate into shillings in their pockets has proven to be a more exciting incentive that has been helping forests. That said, there are still huge barriers for a small community project to jump through the hoops to become accredited.

      So, I certainly don’t see carbon markets as a silver bullet, and I honestly don’t know that they will do much to reduce overall emissions. However, at this point, they do seem to be providing some incentive to protect forests, and until I see some other mechanism that can do this, I’ll keep offsetting my flights between Uganda and the U.S.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, and for the work you are doing through REDD Monitor. Let me know when you have figured out the right answer!


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