STANIS BUJAKERA and HEREWARD HOLLAND
DEMOCRATIC Republic of Congo’s environment minister said on Friday unidentified officials forged her signature to grant conservation licences for the country’s vast forests that play a pivotal role in regulating the Earth’s climate.
In recent months Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi called for an audit of all forest concessions, and Environment Minister Eve Bazaiba called for a ban on uncut log exports.
Anyone with a contract for a forest concession or export permit for logs or timber bearing her signature should present themselves to her office, Bazaiba said in a statement.
A judicial source said prosecutors on Friday interviewed several environment ministry officials following an investigation by the General Inspectorate of Finance (IGF), the government’s anti-corruption agency.
“I was the one who investigated the forgery of handwriting,” Bazaiba, who is also a Vice Prime Minister, said on Twitter.
Home to the majority of the world’s second-largest rainforest, which also straddles its neighbouring countries, Congo is under pressure to improve forest management and curb a rate of deforestation that has doubled in the last decade, according to U.N. figures.
At United Nations climate talks in Britain last month, Congo was among the global leaders that pledged to halt and reverse deforestation.
Conservation groups say corruption and poor governance make Congo’s forests vulnerable to expanding agriculture and illegal logging.
In October Tshisekedi said he wanted to examine the legality of several forest contracts, including one covering an area half the size of Belgium with a company called Tradelink SARL, which was signed by Bazaiba’s predecessor in September 2020.
Greenpeace has accused Bazaiba of signing an order mission in September for ministry staff to help Tradelink obtain local people’s consent for the land acquisition. The environment ministry previously called the allegations unfounded.
On Friday Bazaiba said the mission order was forged. “This is the thing that rang my alarm bells,” she said on Twitter.
No-one responded to Reuters attempts to contact Tradelink via a telephone number on Congo’s company registry.