The Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, launched in 2003, is the European Union’s (EU) response to the global fight against illegal logging. In particular, FLEGT aims at reducing trade in illegal timber between the EU and timber producer partner countries.
FLEGT operates through two major instruments: bilateral trade agreements — known as voluntary partnership agreements (VPAs) — that are signed with willing producer countries, and the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR), which came into force in March 2013. The EUTR mandates EU importers to exert due diligence in their sourcing of timber from abroad to exclude illegal supplies.
To date, six countries have signed VPAs. Among them, five have committed to apply VPA provisions regarding legality verification not only to timber imported to Europe, but also to timber traded on the domestic market in signatory producer countries. This means that timber harvested and traded on the domestic market will be regulated by national VPA licensing schemes (the so-called Timber Legality Assurance System, [TLAS]).
In 2010, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) started discussions with the EU to sign a VPA, which, in the current state of negotiations, should cover timber produced by artisanal loggers for the domestic market.
In recent years, artisanal logging in the has received a lot of negative media and political attention because of the use of small- scale logging permits by industrial companies. This use is proscribed by law and should not be considered representative of the ‘real’ artisanal and domestic timber sector. In fact, across DRC, artisanal logging remains an individual activity practiced by about 25,000 people with basic equipment.
Pro-Formal findings indicate that the production of artisanal sawnwood has doubled in DRC over the last 2 decades. It amounts to more than 1 million m3, 85% of which feeds domestic demand. About 112,000 m3 are exported to neighboring countries, especially to Angola and Uganda. If production of sawn wood is converted into roundwood equivalents (RWE), current harvesting is 13 times greater than formal, industrial timber production.
The timber markets of Kinshasa and of eastern DRC generate a turnover exceeding USD 100 million per year, with a USD 25 million profit (excluding profits from indirect activities). Local populations are major beneficiaries of chain-saw milling: they derive an estimated income of around USD 50 million per year from the sale of trees, wages, profits and formal payments by chain-saw millers.
At the national scale, the average profit rate fluctuates in the range of USD 15–33/m3, while the overall operating cost is USD 150–200/m3. In the provinces of Bas Congo (where artisanal logging is banned) and Bandundu chain-saw milling is especially lucrative for individual operators. Surprisingly, in the eastern part of the country, permit holders hardly earn any income from their activities, due to the expense of small-scale logging permits and dependence on employers who tend to keep them indebted.
The average size of trees harvested is relatively large, with a timber volume per tree of 10–17 m3. The focus of chain-saw millers on large trees indicates that they are still available in the study areas and the younger and smaller trees are not yet cut. Similarly, the small number of species that are harvested by chain-saw millers does not seem to represent a threat to the integrity of the forest, even though this contributes to a decrease in its economic value.
Four approaches can be considered to better regulate and sustain chain-sawmmilling in DRC: (1) a range of practical measures can change problematic behaviors of some key players in the short-term; (2) commercial, technical, financial and institutional support may be provided to legal artisanal sawyers; (3) legal timber should be promoted through public procurement policies; and (4) reform of the legal framework is necessary for better regulation of the chain-saw milling sector in the long-term.