KINSHASA Logging must stop on nearly 13 million hectares of forest in Democratic Republic of Congo after a government review canceled nearly 60 percent of the vast country's timber contracts, the government said on Monday.
Congo, home to the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon, has completed a long-delayed review of 156 logging deals aimed at stamping out corruption in the sector and enforcing minimum legal and environmental standards.
Logging, mining, and land clearance for farming are eating away at the Congo Basin, which accounts for more than a quarter of the world's tropical forest, at a rate of over 800,000 hectares a year -- an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.
At the end of the six-month long World Bank-backed process, a panel of government ministers found that only 65 timber deals were viable. The rest will now be canceled, Environment Minister Jose Endundo told a news conference in Kinshasa.
"I will proceed within the next 48 hours to notify those applicants having received an unfavorable recommendation from the interministerial commission through decrees cancelling their respective conventions," he said.
"Upon notification of the cancellation decision, the operator must immediately stop cutting timber."
Timber rights held by companies whose contracts were canceled by the commission make up 57 percent of over 22 million hectares currently allotted for logging.
The remaining nearly 10 million hectares will carry on as exploitable concessions.
However, Endundo said the government planned to respect a moratorium, put in place during Congo's 1998-2003 war but widely ignored, on granting new timber deals.
Nineteen contracts initially destined to be scrapped were given the green light during an appeals process completed recently, but a final list of companies with concession now due to be canceled has not been released.
In August, a group of experts evaluating the legal and technical aspects of the Congo timber deals recommended that contracts belonging to a subsidiary of Germany's Danzer Group and to Portuguese-owned Sodefor should be revoked.
A third company, Safbois, also saw its agreements slated for cancellation. Together the three firms account for more than 66 percent of all timber exported from Congo, researchers say.
Most of the country's logging deals were agreed during the war or by a three-year corruption-plagued interim government which ruled after it, despite the official moratorium.
In 1992, before the former Belgian colony descended into more than a decade of political turmoil and war, Congo exported around 500,000 cubic meters of timber a year.
By 2002, as rampant corruption took hold and with much of the country under rebel control, less than 100,000 cubic meters were officially declared for export.
Congo today exports around 200,000 cubic meters of timber annually, mostly to Europe, the Environment Ministry says.
However, tax revenues from the sector are minimal.
One of the review's goals, ministry officials said, is to help the state recoup millions of dollars in lost taxes.
(Editing by Alistair Thomson and James Jukwey)