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By Hereward Holland
KINSHASA (Reuters) - President Felix Tshisekedi has called for an audit of Democratic Republic of Congo's vast forest concessions and the suspension of all "questionable contracts" until the audit is concluded.
Home to 60% of the world's second largest rainforest, Congo plays a critical role in regulating Earth's climate but conservation groups say corruption and poor governance make its forests vulnerable to expanding agriculture and illegal logging.
Tshisekedi said he wanted to examine the legality of several contracts, including one granted in September 2020 covering about 1.4 million hectares.
On Sept. 12 last year, former Environment Minister Claude Nyamugabo awarded six concessions to Tradelink SARL, a Congolese company, covering a total of 1.38 million hectares.
Tradelink's concessions exceed the 500,000 ha limit permitted per company, Tshisekedi told ministers late on Friday, according to minutes of the meeting published on Saturday.
Tradelink and Nyamugabo could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tshisekedi asked environment minister Eve Bazaiba "to take stock of the exact locations and finances of all forest concessions in the DRC, and suspend all questionable contracts pending the outcome of the audit," the minutes said.
Irene Wabiwa, a representative of environmental group Greenpeace, said the request for an audit was a "very good thing" and hoped it would be carried out by an independent commission.
"Even if it's a bit late, it's better late than never," she told Reuters.
In July, Bazaiba announced plans to lift a 19-year moratorium on new industrial logging concessions, create a regulator for the country's carbon market and reconcile data between agencies involved in the environmental sector.
Environmental campaigners worried that lifting the moratorium would open up millions of hectares of forests to industrial logging. Bazaiba said the move would help Congo improve governance of the environment.
(Reporting by Hereward Holland, Editing by Bate Felix and Timothy Heritage)