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The World Bank is in denial

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 12 Feb 2013 14:15 GMT
Author: Rick Jacobsen
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By Rick Jacobsen

On Feb. 4th, the World Bank blocked a call from its independent evaluators to review the impacts of its support for industrial logging in tropical forests. The Bank’s internal Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) found that this approach is not helping the poor – the Bank’s core mandate – and is facilitating the destruction of some of the world’s most endangered forests.

The Bank’s forestry policies have many vocal detractors, but in this case it is refusing to answer fundamental criticisms from the one department whose job is to hold it to account. The IEG has spent over a year reviewing the Bank’s $4 billion engagement in the forest sector and the implementation of its 2002 Forest Strategy. While the Forest Strategy promotes poverty reduction, sustainable development, and environmental protection, the IEG found that “poverty reduction, for the most part, has not been adequately addressed” in the World Bank’s forest work, particularly where it supports the industrial timber concession system in tropical rainforests.  The IEG called on the Bank to reassess its approach to tropical rainforests, but the World Bank Board  rejected this recommendation.

It is worth spelling out why this is so problematic. Over the past 50 years, the expansion of the industrial logging trade has led to the wholesale destruction of tropical rainforests around the world. The industry has made a fortune, but failed to deliver on decades of promises to log sustainably and bring economic development to the people living in and around the forests. It simply could not have done this without the financial, legal and administrative support provided by the World Bank and other international donors. With so few tropical forests remaining, the world simply cannot afford to carry on blindly subscribing to the same flawed and destructive economic arguments.

The World Bank claims that it “does not finance industrial-scale logging.” This is not true. For years it has been instrumental in promoting legal and policy reforms that support the establishment of large logging concessions in tropical rainforests.  Recent examples include investments in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon, Laos, and Liberia, all designed to facilitate logging in new forest areas. Claims that this approach is sustainable or beneficial toward poverty reduction do not bear scrutiny – in fact, it leads to violations of the rights of local people who depend on the forest.

In the DRC, for example, where the Bank has been involved since 2003, local communities continue to be left out of decisions about the forests they call home, and have received minimal benefits from logging in the area.  In 2005, local communities and indigenous peoples filed a complaint against the Bank, claiming its forest sector reform activities would harm their livelihoods, violate their rights, and did not follow the Bank’s own policies on investment. The complainants were found to be right by the Bank’s own ombudsman. Nonetheless, the Bank is currently funding a “zoning” process likely to earmark huge areas of forests for international logging companies. At a time when the DRC Government has little political will or capacity to oversee proper management of existing concessions, the World Bank’s work is at risk of helping not hindering the destruction of Africa’s largest remaining rainforest.  

The review itself hones in on this particular point, calling on the Bank to “…undertake and disclose a comprehensive review of the economic, environmental and social outcomes associated with [their] support for industrial timber concession reforms in tropical moist forest countries…to determine whether and how the World Bank Group can realistically support effective sustainable forest management…” For a publicly funded body whose forest projects have fundamental national and global implications, that kind of recommendation should come as an urgent wake up call. To ignore it because it’s not the answer the Bank board wants to hear raises urgent questions over the accountability of its forest policies.

Tropical rainforests are critical for mitigating climate change, preserving biodiversity, and supporting the hundreds of millions of vulnerable people who depend on them for survival. The Bank must start to listen before it is too late. Instead of promoting industrial logging in tropical rainforests, it must address land tenure issues, and build the capacity of local communities to directly manage and benefit from their forests in a genuinely sustainable way. This is the key first step towards ensuring its investments deliver on its core mandate of reducing poverty in its member countries.  

Rick Jacobsen is the head of forest policy at Global Witness

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