Hypocrisy and friends in high places in the Republic of Congo


In March 2018 Earthsight, the investigative non-profit behind Illegal Deforestation Monitor, released The Coming Storm, a report exposing the secrecy and collusion in industrial agriculture which are threatening the Congo Basin’s forests. This post details our findings from The Republic of Congo, where the government’s stated aims to reduce deforestation contrast starkly with what is happening on the ground and behind closed doors.

The Republic of Congo is dedicated to the legal and sustainable management of its forests. On paper at least. It has ratified more than a dozen different environmental treaties and conventions. In addition, in 2010 Congo signed the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT-VPA), a bilateral deal with the EU that aims to ensure that all timber imported into Europe from Congo is legally sourced. Congo is also a member of the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC) and involved in two separate multilateral ‘REDD+’ initiatives aimed at harnessing international climate finance to help fund the protection of forests. In Nov 2016, the Republic of Congo was also among seven West and Central African countries to sign the ‘Marrakesh Agreement’, a promise to promote a palm oil sector that “secures the long term survival of … tropical forests” while also ensuring transparency, good governance, and recognition and respect of local customary land rights.

Through these various initiatives, the Congolese government has received many millions of dollars of donor funding meant to protect forests. A quick Google search of these programmes gives the impression that progress is being made, with no shortage of ceremonies, workshops, implementation committee meetings and conferences. But when one looks deeper, a very different picture emerges. The country isn’t just failing to implement these programmes and promises. Through its actions and deliberate inactions, the government is directly undermining and contradicting them.

The first two new logging concessions the government issued after signing the forest governance agreement with the EU were to a company owned by the daughter of the president. Since then it has repeatedly handed new logging concessions out without due process, including to companies found to have repeatedly and systematically broken the law in their existing logging operations. But perhaps the most contradictory actions it has taken relate to forest conversion.

Between 2008 and 2012, well over half a million hectares of new palm oil and rubber concessions were granted, far more than in any other Congo Basin country. Almost all of the land issued was forested. Three major developments have broken ground thus far in the country. The government has never published the contracts, maps or permits for any of them. Every one of them has been found by the Independent Observer of Forest Law Enforcement to be logging or clearing forest illegally. We have confirmed that none of the companies involved has carried out the legally required social and environmental impact assessment, and our extensive research could find no evidence of the free, prior and informed consent of local customary landholders (FPIC) having been obtained.

One of these projects, run by a company called Atama, remains by far the largest lease for a plantation ever issued in the region. The story of this project demonstrates more than any other the government’s hypocrisy, and provides important clues as to the reasons behind it.

Figure 1: Atama oil palm plantation license area (red), overlaid on a map of Intact Forest Landscapes (the most pristine forests remaining)

Corruption & Congo’s Ticking Carbon Time-Bomb

 In 2010, the government of the Republic of Congo signed an agreement ceding control of 470,000 hectares of densely forested land – an area three times the size of Greater London – to the company Atama Plantation SRL. The company’s owners were carefully concealed behind multiple layers of shell companies in secrecy jurisdictions, but it later emerged that key players included Malaysian property magnate Robert Tan and Reuban Ratnasingam, the boss of one of Congo’s largest and most notorious Malaysian-owned logging firms.

The majority of the license area is virgin rainforest and home to large numbers of endangered species, including gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants (see Figure 1). The largest section also encompasses part of what has recently been revealed as the world’s largest tropical peatland. Earthsight has estimated that at least four billion tonnes of CO2 would be released if this carbon ‘time-bomb’ was cleared and drained for palm oil, causing the peat to rot or burn. That is twice as much as all of America’s cars and trucks combined produce in a year.

Within a few months of it breaking ground in late 2011, authorities uncovered evidence of multiple serious illegalities relating to the project. Hundreds of trees had been cut but not recorded in official felling reports, records had been illegally altered, and the company had cleared forest for more than two kilometres outside the boundaries of its existing deforestation permit. The company was also operating without a legally required Environmental Impact Assessment. In 2014 the officially-mandated Independent Monitor of forest law enforcement found evidence of further breaches, including logging under an expired permit. 

Figure 2: Kosipo logs from Atama’s oil palm development in Republic of Congo at Zhangjiagang port, China, March 2014

The clearing of land for the palm oil concession progressed extremely slowly through 2014 and 2015, before coming to a complete halt late that year. In February 2016 it was reported that the government, frustrated with the slow progress, was considering cancelling the concession. But no action was taken.

Instead, Atama began a new strategy to make money: turning itself into a logging firm. Atama had been cutting, selling and processing wood since it first began operating (see Figure 2), but it could just about claim that this was a side-effect of its clearance of forest for palm. Now, any semblance of doing anything else was abandoned. From May 2016 onward, satellite images show the rapid spread of intensive and destructive selective felling of trees across a wide area of previously untouched forest within the company’s concession (see Figure 3).

In July 2016, the Independent Monitor declared that this logging was illegal, since it was occurring within a deforestation permit which had expired two years previously. Yet the logging continued, and soon extended even beyond that expired permit, into an area of the concession where no authorisation to fell trees had ever been given. During late 2016 and into early 2017, satellite images show Atama was illegally logging 25 football pitches of prime gorilla habitat every single day.

In February 2017 the government finally demanded a halt to the illegal logging. By that time, 5000 hectares had been heavily degraded. Shortly afterwards, an investigation by a local NGO found the company continuing to process large volumes of high value timber. According to that NGO, Atama had also suppressed protests by local villagers through intimidation. It demanded that the government prosecute the company for its crimes and cancel the concession license.

In September 2017 it was revealed that Atama’s CEO, Reuban Ratnasingam, had been interrogated and confessed to an elaborate scheme to export logs illegally without paying the necessary taxes. Some 14,000 cubic metres of logs cut within Atama’s concession are alleged to have been smuggled out of the country, with the complicity of a range of corrupt officials from the forestry and customs authorities. Large volumes of additional logs owned by Atama were seized at the port of Pointe Noire, and the company’s export license suspended.

In December 2017, Tan’s Malaysian stock-exchange-listed firm Wah Seong, which had formally purchased Atama in 2012, quietly sold its stake for US$6 million: $19 million less than it paid for it. The announcement was rushed out just prior to Christmas, and only named an intermediate shell company described as an investment holding firm, without mentioning that its principal asset is a contract to develop a vast oil palm plantation in the Republic of Congo.

The buyer was a shell company which Earthsight has established was registered just two weeks prior to the sale. This mysterious company, whose given address is a nominee firm operating out of a small office suite in a Kuala Lumpur suburb (and operating as a front for more than 250 companies), is now the largest shareholder in the Atama project. The fate of thousands of square kilometres of dense primary forest in the heart of the Congo rests in its hands. A clue to that fate may lie in the activities of another company.

Around the same time that logging activity ramped up at Atama’s concession in the middle of 2016, logging and clearing also began at an oil palm and rubber concession issued to a related company, Lexus Agric, in southern Congo. Reported to be a Malaysian-owned subsidiary or sister firm of Atama, in 2013 Lexus was issued a license for a 50,000 hectare concession around the village of Komono in Lekoumou province, half of which was to be planted with palm and half with rubber. No concession contracts, maps or permits have ever been published by the government, but analysis of a map obtained from the authorities by Earthsight reveals that most of the license area is densely forested, and around a third is ‘intact forest landscape’ (IFL) – the most precious, virgin forest. It is among the only remaining areas of IFL in Southern Congo not already slated for logging.

The latest findings of the official Independent Monitor (IM) show that this company is also operating illegally, while Earthsight has uncovered evidence of additional illegalities. During an inspection by the IM in July 2016, it was found that the company was continuing to clear forest despite its relevant Forestry Department authorisation having expired the previous month. Checks in October 2016 by Earthsight with relevant authorities also confirmed that Lexus Agric has never obtained an Environmental Impact Assessment as required by Congolese law.

Analysis of satellite images by Earthsight reveals additional illegal logging. During 2016 a small area of around 40 hectares of forest was cleared, within an initial 2,000 hectare zone for which a deforestation permit had been issued to Lexus Agric in June 2015. But the company’s logging activity cover a much wider area, and satellite images show this extending far beyond the legal boundaries of that deforestation permit. By January 2018, the company had cut more than 20 kilometres of logging roads into the surrounding forest, including into areas of IFL (see Figure 4).  

Figure 4: Logging roads (red) cut by Lexus Agric, including outside the boundaries of the company’s 5,000 hectares deforestation permit (blue box), and extending by Jan 2018 into areas of intact forest landscape (dark green)

That those additional illegalities were apparently not detected by the Congolese authorities may be because the company was warned. The identity of the person who sent that warning reveals that the rot of corruption exposed in the Atama case goes much deeper.

The Director General of Lexus Agric is a man called Jeremie Issamou, who until 2015 was also the Assistant Director General at Atama. Issamou has played an important role in bringing big palm oil investment to the country. Pictures from 2009 show him travelling by private jet across Congo with Malaysian investors, in advance of the conclusion of the Atama contract. In June 2016, while both Atama and Lexus were busy logging illegally, Issamou posted a picture of a giant log on the back of a truck on his Facebook page. The log appears to carry the markings of Atama. A Facebook friend commented, saying (in French) “Be careful. Don’t brag too much about your secondary activity. Otherwise sanctions. Moreover, aide-Memoire: July for objective control”. 

“Be careful. Don’t brag too much about your secondary activity. Otherwise sanctions.”
Director-General of Agriculture, Republic of Congo, to plantation firm involved in illegal logging

The person who made that comment was none other than Simon Dieudonné Savou, the Director General of Agriculture in Republic of Congo. Savou has for some time been travelling to international climate and forest meetings, extolling the environmental virtues of the country’s plans for its palm oil industry. Most recently, in a December 2017 workshop on Congo’s implementation of its commitment under the Tropical Forest Alliance to halt deforestation, Savou was quoted as saying that the country is “committed to promoting oil palm [only] in the savannah zone”,  diverting it away from the forests that, in fact, are now being targeted by his Facebook friend. The ‘secondary activity’ to which Savou was referring was the logging and timber processing. The ‘aide-Memoire’, meanwhile, appears to have been a warning regarding inspections. In July 2016, the Independent Monitor did visit both Atama and Lexus Agric, accompanied by forestry officials.

Figure 5: Facebook comment by Congo’s Director General of Agriculture, warning an executive of plantation firms Lexus Agric and Atama of impending inspections and telling him not to “brag” about his company’s “secondary activities”

Savou’s boss is the Minister of Agriculture, Henri Djombo. Djombo had been the Minister of Forests when Atama’s original deforestation permits were issued. He took over the agriculture portfolio in April 2016, just before logging activity at Atama suddenly exploded. Three days after the current Minister of Forests announced the exposure of Atama’s illegal log export scheme, Djombo arranged a high-level joint Ministerial meeting with Atama’s Malaysian CEO. After a light dressing down, at the end of the meeting, Djombo expressed his government’s continued support for the company, saying it will “certainly be the biggest player” in Congo’s planned palm oil expansion.  The Atama CEO even took the opportunity to ask for an extension of the company’s existing 25-year lease, on the basis that this would reassure potential financiers. It seems Atama has friends in high places.

Earthsight wrote to Atama, Wah Seong and Lexus Agric to give them an opportunity to respond to our findings. Only Jeremie Issamou responded. He claimed the firm was justified in continuing its operations after its permit had expired because it had submitted an application to renew it. He claimed that Lexus’ actions were not illegal because “no one up to now has accused us of anything.”

Pictures on Jeremie Issamou’s personal Facebook document the history of palm oil development in the Republic of Congo. In this image, multi-millionaire Malaysian palm oil investors touring Congo by private plane, 2009.

For full references and source information, see the full report

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