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Mugabe's loggers to ravage DRC rainforest (August 29, 2001)

The following article from The Observer (UK), was published on WWW.SWNEWS.COM:

26 August, 2001

The army of Zimbabwe's despotic ruler will help to fell trees in 85m acres of Congo. But the people of both nations are unlikely to see any benefits from the 200m deal.

One of the world's last great rainforests is to be laid waste by loggers working for Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, and his ruling clique. Associates of the increasingly despotic 77-year-old are planning the biggest ever logging operation in the precious tropical rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The 85 million acres (almost 1.5 times the area of the United Kingdom) that Mugabe hopes to exploit are the heart of an area recently designated one of the most important forests on the planet by the United Nations. Mugabe has already been attacked for the corruption of his regime and its brutal repression of political dissent. He faces American sanctions and growing international censure for his increasingly violent brand of authoritarian government. Now he faces the wrath of environmentalists too. "The long-term impacts on local people's livelihoods and on rare wildlife such as the gorilla will be devastating," said Patrick Alley, director of the human rights and environmental campaign group Global Witness. "This is forest the world can ill afford to lose."

The rights have been conceded by the Democratic Republic of Congo's government to representatives of the Zimbabwean president in return for military aid against rebels in the east of the country. The war in the DRC has killed an estimated 2.5 million people in the last three years. The logging operation is to be run by the Zimbabwean army and Forestry Commission and is expected to bring in profits of 200m over the two to three years it will take to clear the concessions of the most valuable timber.

Little of the logging money is expected to reach the Zimbabwean people, though their army's involvement in Congo is bankrupting the country. Inflation is running at 70 per cent, unemployment is at 60 per cent and millions live in poverty. Instead, the logging revenues are likely to be shared by a small clique of senior generals and politicians. The funds will also swell the war chest of the Zanu PF party, Mugabe's primary political vehicle, which has led the recent violent crackdown on the growing democratic opposition. Zanu PF need funds to expand its brutal campaign against the challengers to Mugabe's power in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.

The effect of such a huge logging operation will be devastating. Congo has nearly half of Africa's, and 6 per cent of the world's, tropical rainforest. Until recently poor communications and the continuing conflict had largely spared the area from the attention of commercial tropical timber firms. But a German company has been granted a 2.6 million-hectare concession by the desperately poor Congolese government and a series of deals with Malaysian and Chinese companies have also been concluded. Mugabe's concession has been granted to Socebo, a Zimbabwe-registered company whose board includes senior Zanu PF and military figures. The deal was negotiated in 1999.

Socebo was established last year. Its publicity claims that the company "aims to be the world leader in trading tropical hardwoods. Sustainable forestry management is our business". It is based in Kinshasa and is a subsidiary of another firm called Cosleg (Pvt) Ltd. Cosleg is itself a joint venture between Operation for Sovereign Legitimacy (Osleg), a company largely controlled by the Zimbabwean military, and Comiex-Congo, a Kinshasa-based firm partly owned by the family of Joseph Kabila, the President of the DRC.

Two previous projects - a cobalt mining enterprise and a diamond extraction venture - have been disappointments for the Zimbabweans. The cobalt proved less profitable than predicted, and Oryx Diamonds was unable to float on the London Stock Exchange's Alternative Investment Index following recent measures aimed at banning the trade in so-called "conflict diamonds". However, several other ventures have been very lucrative. Analysts believe the vastly profitable opportunities to extract valuable gemstones, minerals, metals and timber from Congo have drawn regional powers into the war there. At least six countries have bartered military support for one or other side in the conflict for the right to exploit some of the country's vast resources.

One United Nations committee, set up to investigate what has been dubbed "The New Scramble for Africa", alleged that Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, such as Mugabe's Zimbabwe, all hope to exploit the conflict for their own financial gain. The armies of Angola and Namibia are also involved in the war. Last week leaders from all the warring factions met in Botswana in a bid to negotiate an end to the fighting. They have agreed to meet again in October, but few are optimistic that the war will be ended soon.

"Zimbabwe's logging deal provides a strong motive for Mugabe to keep his troops committed," said Alley, whose organisation will publish a report on Mugabe's logging operation next week. "That could threaten the whole peace process, and is yet another example of the way in which natural resources are fuelling conflict across Africa and the world."

Zimbabwe's involvement in Congo, which has cost an estimated 300m so far, started three years ago when Laurent Kabila, the former President who was then leader of the rebels and whose son Joseph is the current Congo leader, requested Mugabe's assistance in ousting President Mobutu Sese Seko. A spokesman at the Zimbabwean High Commission said they knew nothing about any logging in Democratic Republic of Congo and had no comment to make.

Source: The Observer (UK), 26 August


    
    

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