From time to time I check recent news of Equateur Province on the web site of Radio Okapi, the national network sponsored by the UN Mission in Congo. Last month I came across an article reporting on more trouble between the population of a village near Bumba (on the Congo River 30 kms. above Lisala) in Equateur and a forestry company cutting hardwood in its area. The story of Siforco’s (Societe Forestiere du Congo) actions in Equateur and neighboring Orientale Province got uglier and uglier when I did a search on Siforco on the Okapi site.
Mining companies are not the only multinational corporations acting like bandits in the American “wild west” while extracting the riches of the Congo. Siforco is the Congolese subsidiary of the Danzer Group, the largest manufacturer of decorative veneer (think expensive wood finish) in the world. The Swiss-German company’s timber processing plant in Maluku, Congo opened in 1976 and is the largest on the continent of Africa. Someone with some time and, one can hope, a foundation fellowship , could look into labor relations at that plant. Based on reports of the company’s relations with the local population in areas where they cut timber, their employee relations at Maluku are not likely to be very good.
The Danzer-Siforco record since their forestry concessions in Congo were recertified in 2005 is abysmal. On May 5, 2011 Radio Okapi reported that several villagers were injured and one person killed when Congolese army troops attacked locals intent on shutting down Siforco operations in Yalisika, near Bumba in Equateur Province. After the company managers refused to discuss charges that they had violated the terms of their forestry agreement , the villagers sought to seize equipment and curtail further cutting of the forest. The primary complaint is that the company has reneged on its promise to build a school and clinic for the local people.
The same complaint of no school or clinic built was filed in 2008 by the local population in the area of Siforco’s logging near Aketi in Orientale Province. In their self defense presented to the Provincial Minister of the Environment, the company charged that villagers would not help with the construction of the education and health centers promised.
On the Danzer Group web site three facts stand out in the company’s justification for its lack of follow through on promises made to local populations in the areas of Congo logging operations:
1) The company web site reports that by the end of 2011 8 schools and five health clinics will have been built by its subsidiary Siforco but it does not indicate where in Congo they were built.
2) The company’s statement that these projects began “after 2009” is an admission that nothing was done per their 2005 agreeements with local populations until 2010.
3) Danzer’s excuse for the delay is laughable for a company reporting revenue of 460 million euros (about $700 million) in 2006: “Unfortunately we were delayed in the implementation of various social projects due to limitations in our capacities to implement social projects accompanied by low levels of cash availability caused by the world economic crisis in 2008 to 2010”
Danzer/Siforco’s record of adhering to their agreements in Congo certainly raises questions about their environmental practices as well as their corporate social responsibility in cutting the hardwood in the Congo basin rainforest. Do we want to entrust the “lungs of the earth” to their stewardship?