Article: Agricultural Expansion and Deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

[Cross-linked at Future Challenges Organization)

Macrotrends: Climate Change + Natural Resources & Biodiversity + Globalization

According to the World Bank, global agricultural production needs to increase by 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed a population of 9 billion. The current global food market favors nations with higher standards of living and greater effective demand (primarily North America, Western Europe). However, increasingly, food production takes place in countries in the global south- Africa, south Asia. In a previous article entitled „The Global Food Crisis and Land Grabs in Africa“, I discussed the trend of governments and multinational corporations buying up Africa‘s arable land.

However, there is a tension between efforts to increase agricultural output and efforts to combat deforestation. Without a change in agricultural practices (particularly slash-and-burn farming in some parts of the Congo), the need for agricultural expansion will undermine work to curtail deforestation. The Democratic Republic of the Congo‘s primary crops are coffee, rubber, palm oil, cocoa, sugar and cotton- all of which are in high demand on the global market. However, farmers in the DRC lack formal support from their government, as credit is not generally accessible and roads are often poorly maintained- impeding their ability to compete in local and international markets.

What‘s the relationship between agricultural expansion and deforestation?

Over 60 percent of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is covered in forest (nearly 66 percent of which is rainforest). During the height of the conflict in the Congo (1998-2002), logging concessions were given out liberally to corporations, granting access to virtually all of the forestland. Recently, the Congolese government made efforts to combat corruption and limit access to the forests. These measures were taken because most of the wood logged in the Congo was exported illegally by these companies.

However, last week, the Democratic Republic of the Congo legalized logging concessions. Lifting the moratorium on logging is a threat to the second largest rainforest in the world. Currently logging operations span 10 million hectares (about 24.7 million acres). Lifting the moratorium means that 15 million additional hectares, or 25 million hectares (nearly 62 million acres) could become open to logging. The average rate of logging was about 800,000 square kilometers a year, and with the expansion of corporate access to the DRC‘s forests, this is likely to increase.

The biggest factors in deforestation are industrial logging and agricultural expansion. Additionally, armed conflict and political instability has indirectly contributed to deforestation along the Congo-Rwandan border. According to the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), local chiefs and Rwandan generals support deforestation in the Kibumba area as a security measure. Fewer trees mean fewer hiding places for guerrilla fighters.

Deforestation brings a whole host of problems including soil erosion, which factors into water conservation. An estimated 24 percent of the world‘s 11.5 billion hectares of vegetated land has already undergone human-induced soil degradation, most particularly through erosion. As the topspoil is diminished due to human activity (unsustainable farming practices, logging, urbanization and housing developments), it becomes even more vulnerable to wind erosion. Deforestation is not simply the cutting down of trees- it is a disruption in delicately balanced interdependent ecosystems.

On the other hand, research by the Foresight Project reports that within 40 years urbanization, desertification and sea level rise (increasingly salty water) will diminish agricultural land. In addition, climate change will factor into volatile food prices via unpredictable and extreme weather events. However, the expansion of agricultural land often entails deforestation. The challenge is to balance our demand for wood, rubber and paper products (effectively decreasing our reliance on deforestation) and also to seek innovative and sustainable agricultural practices. On the part of consumers, this may mean changing consumption patterns.

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