When people speak about tax, it is usually not in the context of forests and trees, at least not in the UK. We are used to paying taxes for health services, for using roads, for provision of support from local councils, even for owning property or having a certain income. I have certainly never heard of a tree tax in the UK, so what on earth do taxes and forests have in common?
I have just been blessed with an experience which has led me to understand this link so much better. My first few days here in DRC have been spent writing a new funding proposal for a forest governance programme in Equateur and Maniema Provinces in DRC. If I am honest it has been an absolute marathon and I am very tired after a whole week-end of working, but that is another story. …..more significantly, however, I have learned about what forests mean to people in DRC and what can happen if they are not properly managed.
Large parts of the land belonging to Equateur and Maniema Provinces is covered by forests. The photo below is not a very good one as it was taken through a relatively dirty window of a small UN Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS) carrier (the planes we are allowed to use to travel around in DRC); but it shows nonetheless just how much woodland there is in Maniema. The photo you see was taken seconds before landing at Kindu airport, provincial capital of Maniema—I cannot imagine seeing forests this dense so close to a UK national airport!
Anyway, due to the abundance of trees, timber production and resulting logging are common practises. Both private companies and local communities themselves cut down trees to sell (even export) wood, to burn it for cooking or to convert it into charcoal for sale to others.
The DRC published a forestry code in 2002, followed by a decree in 2014, both of which stipulate under which conditions people are allowed to cut down trees. Broadly speaking, timber extraction without a concession (for which people have to pay) is illegal. The law is one thing; reality is another….and so hundreds of trees continue to be cut down by individuals and logging companies, without the necessary taxes being paid. Those who sell the wood on national or international markets thus earn money from forests belonging to the communities, while those living in those areas often receive nothing in return.
This has a tremendous impact on the environment and also on local communities, whose woodlands are gradually reducing. Often these communities lack basic services, and local governments could deliver services to them by using the funds raised from the taxes.
What is worse, there are even international laws which ban the export/import and sale of illegally extracted timber—but due to lack of formal processes to ensure that logging concession are awarded and timber is certified at source, a large part of DRC’s timber is exported illegally-often through countries which are actually signatories to key international conventions but are either unaware that the timber passing into their territory is not certified, or choose to turn a blind eye.
Internationally, there is a specific mechanism called FLEGT which governs the conditions under which DRC and EU and other signatory countries can import timber ; the certification rules for Europe are tough and so the DRC still needs to negotiate further with the EU for full enactment of its FLEGT membership and, hence, for the right to import Congolese timber into the UK.
In short, this is what I have been writing about during my first few days here in Kinshasa. The project we are trying to raise money for aims to work at a strategic level to ensure national and international logging and timber certification legislation is respected; at national and grassroots level, it aims to establish communities of practice who, through awareness raising and support in setting up legal commnity forests, will see that it is possible to be legally and successfully involved in timber exploitation; and to help communities claim their right to the logging concessions so that they can be compensated for the loss of woodland, perhaps re plant trees or benefit from additional services.
The project is an exciting one—and the fact that I am saying this after beavering away on this proposal day in day out till late in the evening and even this week-end testifies to the fact that I am actually really motivated by this. Our team have worked hard on it; the work is so needed. I pray that our fundraising for this programme will be successful.