LIPUA LIPUA — He'd been away for some time in Mbandaka, the capital of the northwestern Équateur province along the Congo River. But when Pierrot Mawambe returns to Lipua Lipua, a fisherman camp on an islet 80 kilometers downstream, he was stunned by the void where huge waka trees used to stand. "Timber harvesters cut them down," a local informs him.

In the past, waka trees (a variety of guibourtia) as well as others like the "monsenge" and the "mokese" (pycnanthus angolensis) hadn't been commercialized. But now, traditional harvesters, like Richard Mobembo, have seen a business opportunity, after this new sort of wood was circulating on the market in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) capital. "When we see it in Kinshasa, we immediately look for it in the forest when we return to the Équateur region," Mobembo said. "We'll sometimes even cut down any tree that's more than 50 centimeters in diameter, even if we don't know their names or qualities. Only when we put it on the market do we realize what it is, and what it's actually worth."

Despite the restrictive legislation on forest exploitation in the DRC, an attempt to bring down deforestation and to fight against global warming, the wood market is still going strong in the region. Every day, boats belonging to big companies and rafts of small, traditional harvesters travel downstream to Kinshasa.

Rising demand

Waka wood can fetch between $350 and $500 per cubicle meter, mokese up to $140. Others, of lesser quality, like moluku (which sells for just $70 per cubicle meter) still find buyers in construction, packaging and other industrial sectors. Patrick Mowei, a local builder, says the real estate boom and modern architecture with multiple roof lines, which currently are very popular in DRC, are driving up wood demand.

Aerial view on a forest in North Kivu, DRC — Photo: MONUSCO/Myriam Asmani

Environmental activists are worried, warning that the razing of new tree varieties represents a real danger for the ecosystems of areas which, until then, had been spared the worst of deforestation. This is compounded by the fact that traditional timber harvesters limit their activity to areas near the rivers, so they can transport the wood more easily on their rafts, even though the legislation bans all timber exploitation less than two kilometers from running water.

"Large parts of the region's forests are disappearing every day," says Bonkanya Mangwele, an environment researcher at the region's University of Mbandaka. "The fact that trees near the streams are being cut down leads to erosions and damages the soil." He warns that entire islets could disappear, causing large quantities of sand to end up in some rivers, which isn't good news for the fight against global warming.

Traditional timber harvesters, eager to play down the impact of their own activity, are instead pointing the finger at industrial exploiters. "Compared to them, we amount to almost nothing," says Richard Mobembo. "It's the big companies that are destroying the environment because they exploit vast surfaces and cut down large quantities of trees. We're happy with the crumbs."