This new law is a crucial step towards more sustainable management of Congo’s invaluable forest resources.
The Republic of Congo has passed an historic new law ensuring more sustainable management of the country’s vast forests that play a crucial role in regulating the world’s climate.
Legal experts from ClientEarth, who work with partners in the country, have welcomed the new Forest Code, which received presidential approval in July and will govern the central African nation’s 223,340 km2 of forests – an area larger than Great Britain.
While the law was approved by Parliament in April, its actual details have only just been made public.
ClientEarth legal experts have spent the past eight years working with local partner organisations to help draft the law to manage forest resources more sustainably and ensure community and indigenous involvement in forest governance processes.
While the law represents a significant improvement, there are details regarding its implementation that remain to be addressed.
Forests in the country are part of the Congo Basin – the second largest tropical rainforest area in the world, after the Amazon – and home to an expansive ecosystem of plant and animal species.
Despite its vegetation and peatlands acting as large carbon sinks, the exploitation of natural resources continues to threaten the ecological balance.
Inès Mvoukani, a senior in-country associate with ClientEarth, said: “Research proves that the best way to manage forests around the world is to have strong national laws governing them that recognise and secure rights of forest dependent communities.
“This new law is a crucial step towards more sustainable management of Congo’s invaluable forest resources and a tool for strengthening the rights of forest communities who are their most effective guardians.
“The vast forests of the Congo Basin act as the planet’s second lung. So globally, it is hard to overestimate just how important ensuring this wealth of ecological diversity will be in avoiding climate catastrophe.”
The legal reform process started in 2012 and is one of the key outcomes of the bilateral timber-trade agreement between the European Union and Republic of Congo, otherwise known as a Voluntary Partnership Agreement. The aim of this agreement is to ensure that all timber produced is legal.
A number of contributions from ClientEarth’s legal experts and their partners were included in the final draft of the law, including clauses to strengthen environmental standards and ensure communities’ participation in forest management.
Key changes include:
· The Forest Code puts in place for the first time the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, to ensure local communities and indigenous peoples’ involvement in forest governance processes;
· Forest-dependent communities are granted forest management rights with the establishment of a community forestry scheme;
· Civil society organisations take part in the commission in charge of adjudicating forest-concessions;
· Within the forest-concession contracts, special benefit-sharing specifications are negotiated directly by affected communities;
· Forest management plans are examined and adopted by two distinct multi-stakeholder committees composed among others with civil society organisations, local communities and indigenous peoples;
· A legal regime governs the conversion of forests to another use;
· The mandate of civil society’s forest independent monitoring is legally recognised for the first time;
· And provisions support REDD+ projects development and provide for a carbon ownership regime.
While these are notable improvements, there are concerns that the law does not go far enough in providing legal certainty to enhance community rights.
The extent of local communities and indigenous peoples’ use rights over forests is not yet clear, and will be addressed in implementing regulations to come.
There are also concerns that forest areas dedicated to community livelihoods remain subject to rules developed by logging companies. This could mean communities are consulted, but not actively involved in, determining the management of their own development areas.
Tanja Venisnik, a law and policy advisor at ClientEarth, said that it is essential that civil society and community representatives play a central role in the decision-making process of forest management.
“In order for Congo’s forest management to be sustainable into the future, the key improvements of the law need to be followed up by equally strong implementing regulations. In determining these next steps, active civil society involvement should be a priority.”
The legal reform process was an opportunity for local organisations and groups to participate in law-making processes, although it was not without setbacks and did not always allow enough time for people to take part.
Venisnik continued: “The Republic of Congo needs to promote transparency and inclusivity and ensure that communities – particularly indigenous ones, who depend of forests – are part of the legal and political process deciding forest management.”
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.