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(CNN) -- The world's second largest rainforest -- a haven of biodiversity and one of the planet's vital safeguards against runaway global warming -- is being devastated by illegal logging, environmentalists have warned.
More than 15 million hectares of central African forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been given away to international logging companies since a moratorium sponsored by the World Bank was agreed in 2002, causing "social chaos environmental havoc," Greenpeace said in a new report.
Up to 40 million people in the region depend on the rainforest for survival, but Greenpeace found evidence of communities granting logging rights to companies worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for gifts such as bags of salt, machetes, soap, coffee and beer or unfulfilled promises to build hospitals and schools.
In one case a community was persuaded to give up its rights as the traditional landowners of an area of forest for a package worth around £10,000. Yet the timber from a single tree was worth around £4,000 in Europe. Greenpeace also said that local communities had failed to benefit from taxes paid by logging companies.
"Logging companies promise us wonders: work, schools, hospitals, but actually, they seem to be only interested in their own short term profits. What will happen when our forests have been emptied? They will leave and we'll be the ones left with damaged roads, schools with no roofs and hospitals without medicine" Congolese activist Matthieu Yela Bonketo told Greenpeace.
"Industrial logging doesn't bring benefits... The local communities who live in them are suffering because of the presence of the industry."
As well as destabilizing human communities, logging also threatens to decimate an ecosystem that is critical for the survival of wildlife including forest elephants and endangered apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.
But in the longer term the damage caused to the forest by human activity could have even greater repercussions.
With other rainforest regions such as the Amazon also being depleted rapidly -- the percentage of the earth's land surface covered by rainforest is estimated to have slipped from 14 percent to around six percent -- the sudden disappearance of millions of hectares of the earth's natural defenses against climate change is likely to have consequences far beyond local communities and wildlife.
Around eight percent of the earth's forest carbon storage is trapped in the DRC's 86 million hectares of rainforest. At current rates, forest clearance is set to release more than 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050 -- the equivalent of the UK's total emissions for the past 60 years. Some scientists predict all of the planet's natural rainforests could have disappeared by the mid 21st century.
According to the 2002 deal, the government of the DRC agreed not to issue any further logging licenses or to renew any existing contracts in return for $90 million in World Bank development aid.
But Greenpeace estimated that up to 100 logging contracts had been issued since the moratorium was due to come into force. It also fears many of those could be legalized as part of a review subsequently initiated by the World Bank.
"Our findings expose serious lapses of governance, a massive lack of institutional capacity to control the forestry sector, widespread illegalities and social conflicts, as well as clashes with established conservation initiatives," the report said.
Urging the World Bank to take fresh action to clean up the logging industry, Greenpeace senior forest campaigner Belinda Fletcher said it was "crunch time" for the DRC's rainforest.
"The international logging industry operating in the country is out of control. Unless the World Bank helps the DRC to stop the sell off of these rainforests, they'll soon be under the chainsaws."