An internal investigative panel within the World Bank has just prepared a stinging indictment of the industrial logging the Bank is supporting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The damning report prepared by the bank’s Inspection Panel, due to be discussed shortly by the board of the Bank, was leaked on Wednesday last week to the Rainforest Foundation. The report charges that the logging poses major threats to the natural environment and the indigenous inhabitants in the Congo rainforests. Those indigenous peoples, often referred to as “Pygmies” in news reports, include the Mbuti.

The World Bank reestablished its presence in the DR Congo in 2002 when the war that had ravaged that country for years was beginning to wind down. The Bank worked hard to create a favorable climate of opinion for clearing Congo of its rainforests through industrial-scale logging, which would bring much needed revenue to the country. It divided the country into forestry management zones and pushed through new legislation in order to facilitate its goals.

On December 5, 2005, a coalition of 12 indigenous groups in Congo appealed to the World Bank to reconsider its decision to open up the forests for wide-scale logging. The Rainforest Foundation supported their complaint, as did Friends of the Earth. The complaints decried Bank plans to support the logging of 600,000 square km (232,000 square miles) of rainforests. These complaints were sent to the Inspection Panel, which launched a two-year investigation.

The Panel has just completed its work. The primary purpose of the Inspection Panel, established by the Executive Directors of the World Bank on September 22, 1993, “is to address the concerns of the people who may be affected by Bank projects and to ensure that the Bank adheres to its operational policies and procedures during design, preparation and implementation phases of projects.”

According to the Rainforest Foundation, the report, which has not been released yet, “shows that the World Bank has committed grave errors in its projects in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.” While the Inspection Panel acknowledges that massive logging would turn the country into a leading timber producer, it also says that the Bank has given “inadequate consideration of the many important socio-economic and environmental issues of forest [use].”

The Panel report charges that the Bank did not even recognize that the forest is inhabited by many indigenous peoples, and Bank officials were barely aware of the fact that perhaps 40 million people, subsistence farmers, also depend on the health of the forest for their survival. The report says that massive lumbering would threaten the environment, and it would not do much to alleviate poverty in the country. The Panel believes that the Bank inflated, for the government of Congo, the revenues that might be expected from the logging.

The Panel report strongly condemns Bank operations. It charges that the Bank failed to follow its own established policies designed to protect human rights, environmental safety, and natural habitats. The staff of the Bank reduced the levels of environmental assessments that would be required, then failed to even carry out those assessments. Furthermore, the Bank has provided inadequate management of the project and has not even provided the oversight to bring the existing illegal logging operations under control.

The day after the Rainforest Foundation announced the contents of the report on its website, The Guardian newspaper gave the story prominent coverage, which has, in turn, prompted a number of international news reports and blog entries. The Guardian, which frequently posts news stories on African affairs, speculates that the Panel report “may lead to a complete rethink of how forestry in the DRC is practised.”

The paper, which indicates it also has seen a copy of the report, provides details that the Rainforest Foundation did not mention. Apparently the Panel did travel to the forests of the DR Congo to take direct testimony from the indigenous peoples. They told the Panel that they had not been consulted by the Bank before it launched the forestry reforms in 2002.

One Pygmy leader told the Panel, “we are being made poor in every aspect … the [logging] company prevents us from going into the forests.” Another person said, “roads are going ever deeper into the forests, opening it up. We are increasingly deprived of our foods and drugs. We have never seen anything from the bank except promises.” Another person believes that a logging company had bought the land so that people could no longer live in the forests.

The paper quotes Simon Counsell, Director of the Rainforest Foundation, as saying, “the Pygmies must be fully involved in developing any future plans for the forest, and the bank need[s] to find ways of helping them uphold their rights, rather than helping logging companies to destroy them.” In his own organization’s news report, Counsell said that the report is “a major victory for the ‘Pygmy’ peoples of the Congo.”