To save the Congo Basin rainforest, end the conflict in the DRC

To save the Congo Basin rainforest, end the conflict in the DRC

As leaders, activists and policy makers deliberate on action on climate change at the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, the world’s forests are once again in the spotlight. When thinking about solutions to the deforestation that threatens them, we need to address the root causes of the practice.

One place where the world should focus its attention is the rainforest in the Congo River Basin. It is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. It spans six Central African countries and has the capacity to absorb 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year.

About 60 percent of this precious forest is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and there, deforestation continues at a faster rate than in other Congo Basin countries. In 2019, the DRC came second in terms of deforestation after Brazil when some 475,000 hectares (1.17 million acres) of forest were destroyed.

At the 26th UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow in 2021, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi signed an agreement with the Central African Forest Initiative to protect the Congo Basin rainforest , unlocking funding of some $500 million. Under the agreement, 8 million hectares of degraded land and forest are supposed to be regenerated and 30 percent of the DRC’s rainforest should be given special protection status.

Although laudable, the agreement does not address the drivers of deforestation in the country. Chief among them is the presence of local and foreign armed groups, which have been destabilizing eastern DRC for more than two decades.

These armed groups engage in poaching of wildlife as well as illegal logging and trade in timber and other natural resources. It is through these illegal transactions that these groups finance their military operations and cause significant damage to the Congolese people and the environment, with the complicity of local and external actors, as reported by the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In addition, the continuing conflict in eastern DRC has resulted in the internal displacement of some 5.6 million people. Many of them had to flee to the rainforest, where they cleared land for agriculture and used wood for fuel, which further aggravated deforestation.

For the DRC’s forests to be saved, the conflicts there must be resolved. For more than two decades, different solutions to resolve the conflict have been proposed, but the problem has persisted.

The UN has maintained a peacekeeping force in the country since 1999, with a mandate to protect civilians and help preserve peace. In 2013, the UNSC approved the deployment of a special intervention brigade to neutralize armed groups.

In the same year, a peace, security and cooperation framework for the DRC and the region was signed by representatives of 11 countries in the region, as well as the presidents of the African Union, the International Conference on the of the Great Lakes, Southern African Development Community and the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Several ceasefire agreements and intra-Congolese dialogues have been undertaken. The DRC and some of its neighbors have also carried out joint military operations against armed insurgents.

None of these actions produced significant progress towards establishing lasting peace in the east of the country.

At the moment, fierce fighting is taking place between the Congolese army and the armed group M23. Congolese officials have accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 and have refused to enter into dialogue with the group unless it withdraws from territories it has occupied.

Western countries, such as the United States and France, have called for the imposition of sanctions against those who provide material and financial support to armed groups. While this may help reduce some financial flows to the insurgents, it would not resolve the conflict.

We need to address its root causes: the historical grievances of some communities dating back to the colonial era and the post-independence period that are linked to exclusion from access to land, electricity and resources in the Great Lakes Region (GLR). The situation has been further exacerbated by corruption, the absence of strong state authority and the rule of law. Various communities in the DRC continue to suffer from dispossession and massive violence committed against them.

At the same time, it must be recognized that there are external factors that fuel the conflict, including political instability and tension in neighboring countries. These problems have spilled over the border and turned the DRC into a reluctant host to foreign rebel groups.

In this context, I call on COP27 participants to push for a solution to the armed conflict as part of their climate action agenda. In my view, a solution should involve direct engagement with DRC’s neighbors and require their commitment to resolving national struggles that cause regional instability.

These countries should engage their citizens in inclusive national dialogues to strengthen good governance based on respect for human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law. This, combined with a serious peace initiative in the DRC, can put an end to the armed groups operating in the east of the country.

COP27 should be the place where the rest of the world understands that the Congo Basin rainforest only stands a chance if lasting peace is established in the region.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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