New roads quadrupled deforestation rates in Congo Basin since 2002, triggering 'catastrophic collapses' in animal populations

According to a research team, many wildlife species, such as forest elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees, are highly vulnerable to current and future road-expansion trends

The rate of forest destruction associated with new roads has quadrupled since 2000 in Africa's Congo Basin - which houses the world’s second-largest rainforest - and which has led to “catastrophic collapses” in animal populations living there, reveal the findings of a new study. This environmental degradation is being driven by the dramatic expansion of logging roads in the basin, said the findings published in Nature Sustainability.

Logging roads are narrow roads that are mostly used to transport timber, but may not be limited to it.

“The main significance of our findings is that the Congo Basin is being overrun by new roads, especially those created by industrial loggers. Those roads are leading to a lot of forest destruction and wildlife killing because they open up the forest to slash-and-burn farmers and poachers,” Dr. Bill Laurance, Director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, James Cook University, Australia, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

Dr. Laurance, who has worked in Africa for 15 years, helped lead an international team that exhaustively mapped all roads in the Congo region, using satellite imagery. They found that since 2003, the total length of roads has increased by nearly 100,000 kilometers.

“In the Congo Basin, unpaved logging roads used by timber firms, as well as paved and unpaved public roads, have expanded greatly. Across the Congo Basin, we found that total road networks increased in length by 61% since 2003, from 143,700 to 230,800 km,” said the paper.

Deforestation within 1 km of roads was highest for old roads, followed by new roads, and was lowest for abandoned roads, said the findings. “Unless limited by better planning and law enforcement, road expansion will lead to major increases in carbon emissions from forest disruption, especially in remote areas of the Congo being opened up by new roads,” Dr. Laurance told MEAWW.

The findings show that yearly deforestation rates between 2000 and 2017 near (within 1 km) roads markedly increased during the course of this study, and on average, the rate of forest destruction associated with new roads has quadrupled since 2002.

According to the research team, many wildlife species, such as forest elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees, are highly vulnerable to current and future road-expansion trends. “Elephants, gorillas, and chimps hardly have anywhere to hide from poachers now. As a result, the global population of forest elephants has collapsed by two-thirds over the past decade,” they added.

The researchers found that across the Congo Basin, total road networks had increased in length by 61% since 2003, from 143,700 to 230,800 km. (Getty Images)

Currently, large parts of the Congo Basin are used for selective logging and require extensive road networks to access and transport timber. Continued logging, noted the research team, is also leading to the incursion of logging roads into many intact-forest landscapes. They explained that by providing access to remote regions, new roads cutting through intact forests are “detrimental to the continued integrity of extensive forest areas,” frequently opening a ‘Pandora’s box’ of additional and often illicit activities such as mining, poaching, land colonization, and deforestation.

“Road expansion was most pronounced in logging concessions, in which total road length doubled from 50,300 km to 100,300 km. Outside logging concessions, road length increased by 40%, from 93,300 to 130,500 km,” said the paper.

According to the researchers, logging concessions have been described as potential buffer zones for conservation purposes, for example, in the vicinity of a protected area.

The team said that they were especially worried about the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, which is the largest nation in the Congo Basin. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, new roads lead to two to three times more deforestation than they do in other Congo nations, Dr. Laurance told MEAWW. This is extremely worrisome, said the research team, as the DRC has plans to increase logging sharply. They added that the DRC recently sold 1.6 million acres (650,000 hectares) of new logging concessions to Chinese timber corporations. 

The researchers said that there is considerable scope to improve the sustainability of selective-logging operations by closing disused logging roads or by destroying bridges over creeks after they have harvested the timber, which can sharply reduce deforestation and limit poaching. They said one promising result is that, outside of the DRC, many roads inside logging areas are being abandoned and the forest allowed to regenerate after the timber is harvested, suggesting that there is considerable scope to make industrial logging less damaging to forests.

A key conclusion of the study is that much road building in Africa is very harmful, destroying forests, and killing wildlife. Dr. Laurance said to address this problem, the most crucial step that should be taken is to critically evaluate road-building schemes as many roads are being built to extract timber, minerals, and fossil fuels and there is a great deal of corruption involved. 

According to the research team, many projects are getting approvals only because corporations and financiers from China and elsewhere are bribing government officials in Africa to get unimpeded access to natural resources.

“A rapid influx of foreign investment from China and other nations, often focused on exploiting timber, minerals, and fossil fuels, is a critical threat to Congo ecosystems. Because of widespread corruption, many high-risk projects are being approved in African nations,” Dr. Laurance told MEAWW. 

He further said that a related need is for more transparency. “For many projects, a few people - such as politicians and land-developers - are getting very rich, while the majority of people see little economic benefit, and there are huge environmental costs. Most of this is happening in the shadows. China does not conduct its business openly, and neither do some African nations, so there’s a real challenge here,” he said.