KINSHASA, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Congo's environment ministry said on Tuesday it had reinstated thousands of square kilometres of logging concessions in its equatorial forests, a move environmentalists fear could cause huge volumes of greenhouse gases to be released.
The forests cover peatlands believed to contain billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and scientists are concerned that any disruption could release massive quantities of greenhouse gases, blamed for climate change, into the atmosphere.
In a statement, Democratic Republic of Congo's environment ministry said the peatlands would not be threatened because they lie in zones that are "geographically unexploitable".
Environmental groups also said Environment Minister Amy Ambatobe's decision to grant 6,500 square km (2,510 square miles) in concessions earlier this month to two Chinese-owned companies violates a 2002 moratorium Congo imposed on new industrial logging titles.
The ministry said in response that its actions did not violate the moratorium since the concessions in questions had already been exploited.
The two companies, Forestiere pour le Developpement du Congo (FODECO) and Societe La Millenaire Forestiere (SOMIFOR), could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Congo Basin is the world's second largest rainforest and over half of its 500 million hectares lies within Congo's borders. The forest is home to rare species including forest elephants and dwarf chimpanzees.
"The issuing of new logging concessions sends a clear signal ... that the DRC government is abandoning any pretence at reducing emissions from deforestation," said Simon Counsell, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK.
London-based campaign group Global Witness, another signatory to the statement, said in a 2015 report that the degradation of Congo's forests is getting worse due to logging outside of permitted areas and over-exploitation.
Congo's former environment minister cancelled the logging concessions in question in 2016 following an outcry by environmentalists but the government has chafed against outside criticism and threatened to lift the moratorium altogether.
Last week, Congo's oil minister defended the country's right to explore for oil anywhere on its territory following reports President Joseph Kabila had approved exploration inside Africa's largest tropical rainforest reserve.
(Reporting by Amedee Mwarabu; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Richard Balmforth/Mark Heinrich)
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