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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 October 2007, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Logging with care in Congo
By John James
BBC News, Congo-Brazzaville

The Mbendjele people of Congo-Brazzaville are using the latest satellite mapping technology to stake claim to a rainforest, two-thirds of which may be gone in 50 years.

Mbendjele pygmies using a hand-held mapping device
Satellite mapping tools are helping the Mbendjele defend their land
With half an eye on the stacks of suitcases piled precariously high just inches from my head, I glance out of the plane window at the vast expanse of the Congo basin rainforest.

From the vantage point of a creaking Soviet-era propeller plane we appear to be hovering above a sea of broccoli, every child's worst nightmare.

That could explain the screaming children sitting behind me, though more likely it is the intense heat inside the plane and the dripping condensation.

The rainforest below stretches over six countries, but in this region it is being cut down at an alarming rate.

A recent Greenpeace report speaks of vast concessions being handed over for a few bags of sugar.

In Congo most of the wood is destined for China - 90% illegally, I am told.

No ordinary town

The pilot scans the horizon for the red-earth runway at Pokola, the town at the centre of a logging concession two-thirds the size of Wales.

Despite its remote location 500 miles (800km) from the capital, Brazzaville, this forest is home to Congo's largest private employer, a Danish logging subsidiary called CIB.

It is not long before I realise Pokola is no ordinary logging town.

Map of Congo including the tiny town of Pokola

In fact, in a sense I have entered a hidden forest kingdom, a state within a state. A place so different from the rest of Congo it makes me feel slightly dizzy.

The logging camp has grown from a small fishing village on a gentle bend in the Sangha River to a town of 13,000 people enjoying infrastructure unheard of elsewhere in Congo.

Almost everyone who works, works for the company.

They live in the company's red brick family homes. Company generators provide non-stop electricity, drinkable water runs from taps at every corner.

For the young there are new schools, for the sick free medical check-ups and heavily subsidised medicine. On the way are a new hospital and an international bank. For the evening's entertainment, try the company nightclub.

Accredited timber

I am shown my guest room, though there is little time to enjoy the fridge-like air-conditioning or watch Canal Pokola, the company television channel.

A timber yard with piles of wooden planks
Almost all the timber is processed on site, one of the things the company had to do to get its timber accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council
Instead, it is off to meet the head of the operation, a stout Frenchman who unconsciously frowns when he listens and smiles broadly when he speaks.

He is full of enthusiasm and we immediately set off for the conveyor belts, chains and whirring blades of the company sawmills.

Almost all the timber is processed on site - one of the things the company had to do to get its timber accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council.

This is the only place in tropical Africa that supplies timber which meets the international standard laid down by the council.

To understand how distinctive operations are in this corner of Congo, I head out to the village of Ibamba, a small settlement of Mbendjele Pygmies.

Such traditional forest people are almost invariably ignored by logging companies. The key challenge, I'm told by CIB, is communication.

A Mbendjele child
An estimated 5,000 Mbendjele live within the logging concession

Semi-nomadic communities head into the forest for four or five months at a time. They are difficult to track down and many do not read or write.

I sit with one of the Mbendjele men, Jean Fongola, outside a domed leaf hut.

In something of a contrast to our surroundings, the conversation revolves around the intricacies of hand-held satellite technology.

Sacred trees

The Mbendjele take such devices into the forest to create maps showing places of community importance.

A specially designed touch-screen shows several images.

For example, there is one for hunting, another for a cemetery, and another for a sacred tree. When these icons are pressed, the handheld device makes a note of the satellite co-ordinates.

The women of the village take obvious pride in pointing out these features on their newly printed maps.

They don't need the maps themselves of course, but for the first time they have a record of how they use the land that can help them discuss their land rights with companies and the government.

A road through the rainforest
Within 50 years two thirds of the forest could have disappeared

A couple of older women agree to show us one of their sacred trees, a good distance from the village.

We make our way down a forest trail that is surprisingly easy to follow, though a few machete swings give a bit more room.

"This is a sacred tree in our tradition and it is vital this tree is never cut down," one of the women, Madelaine Sampoumbeh, tells me.

They ask if I would like to hear the song they sing to the tree to ask for success during their hunting expeditions.

It is a haunting ceremony few outsiders ever get to experience. The villagers clap and sing - the women's voices alternating rapidly from high to low notes - while the men provide a regular bass note.

The Mbendjele seem happy - and indeed surprised - by the efforts the logging company is making to protect their way of life.

The company is clearly pleased with its work too. One employee tells me that not so long ago the company's ex-pat staff were ashamed to talk about logging in Africa back home.

Now there is a tangible sense of pride.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 6 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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