In 2002, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) passed a moratorium against new commercial logging licenses, an attempt to protect millions of acres of valuable rain forest in the central African nation,

The move was hailed by environmentalists. The Congo Basin is home to the second-largest tropical rain forest in the world (behind the Amazon). According to the World Wildlife Foundation, it covers an area bigger than the state of Alaska. Deforestation in the Basin (not all of which is in the DRC) is considered by many as a major cause of global climate change.

Earlier this year, though, the DRC announced that it's considering lifting the moratorium. Now, scientists and environmentalists fear that, if commercial loggers again are allowed to work in the DRC’s portion of the Congo Basin, more than 40 million people who rely on the forests for food, shelter and fresh water could be affected. In addition, several species of wildlife — including bonobos, gorillas and elephants — would further be endangered. And the push to slow climate change would suffer a major blow.

It’s a stunning decision by the government, one that already has environmentalists, nature lovers and economists on edge.

Simon Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation UK writes:

“Expansion of industrial logging in Congo’s rainforests is likely to have serious long-term negative impacts on the millions of people living in and depending on those forests. We urge the government of DRC to instead promote community based forest protection and alternatives to logging that will help the country’s population prosper.”

Lars Løvold of Rainforest Foundation Norway, told Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news and information site:

“At a time when the global community is working together to protect the world’s last rainforests, a vital defense against climate change, the DRC government seems to be undermining the commitment to reducing emissions that it presented [at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December in Paris].”

The reason for the DRC’s about-face isn't entirely clear. The original moratorium has long been a source of conflict. Ignored by many at first, illegal logging had slowed after a 2005 order enforcing the moratorium from DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila. Still, over the years, the moratorium has been tested on several occasions. Illegal logging continues to be a problem.

In declaring the country’s intention to consider dropping the moratorium, Robert Bopolo Bogeza, the DRC’s minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development, reportedly has suggested economics are at the heart of the decision. The vast rain forests are considered one the country’s most valuable resources.

But Réseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN), a group of more than 250 environmental and human rights organizations in the DRC, says logging is not the answer to bringing wealth to the impoverished country.

“The argument that logging can significantly contribute to government revenues is completely unfounded,” Joesph Bobia, the national coordinator for RRN, told Mongabay. “Around a tenth of the DRC’s rainforest is already being logged. And yet, in 2014 the country obtained a pitiful $8 million [U.S. dollars] in fiscal revenues from the sector — the equivalent of about 12 cents for every Congolese person.”

Many of the world’s developed countries, including England, Germany and the United Kingdom, have pledged billions of dollars to forest-rich countries like the DRC to fight deforestation and global warming through programs like the United Nations-backed REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) and REDD+. Those programs, most of which are still under negotiation, would pay countries like the DRC to preserve their forests.

“The framework could provide compensation to governments, communities, companies or individuals who have taken actions to reduce emissions from forest loss below an established reference level,” according to the World Resources Institute. “The effective implementation of a REDD strategy in the Republic of Congo can help protect carbon- and biodiversity-rich tropical rainforests while promoting local prosperity.”

The government of the DRC, with its threat to consider opening up the country’s rain forests to commercial logging interests, may well be pushing the international community to adopt policies like REDD. Or it may see tapping into its forests as a legitimate economic move. (Despite its vast natural resources, including billions of dollars in untapped mineral wealth, the DRC remains one of the poorest countries on Earth. The DRC ranks 176th among 188 countries in the U.N.'s Human Development Report. The country's per capita income in 2014 was $380, among the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank.)

Whatever the case, the nearly 70 million people who live in the DRC will be directly affected if the government eventually opens up the country for further deforestation. And the rest of the world will be nervously watching to see if the Congo Basin rain forests survive.

Congo's rain forests under logging threat
Democratic Republic of Congo may allow new industrial loggers into environmentally critical region of the continent.