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Congo River Basin, a reservoir of biodiversity threatened with extinction

[DRC] De denses forêts entourent sur des kilomètres la ville de Walikale (RDC). Jungle in Walikale Territory. (Date of photo 14 April 2004).
Vue aérienne de la forêt congolaise de Walikale, un territoire dans l'est de la République démocratique du Congo (RDC)
Situated in the heart of Africa, the Congo River Basin is a body of forest and marine ecosystems that encompass the Central African countries of the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The Congo Basin - considered the world's second ecological lung; the other being the Amazon basin - constitutes a huge reservoir of biodiversity. Its forests are now subject to excessive exploitation and some animals are threatened with extinction. The Congo River Basin area covers some 520 million ha, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. The forests within it account for 200 million ha, or 38.4 percent of vegetation cover. This is 30 percent of Africa's vegetation cover and 18 percent of the world's tropical forests. These forests have wood and non-wood products. In this gigantic reservoir, there are officially 10,000 species of plants, of which some 3,000 are endemic to the Congo Basin. The Congo Basin also accounts for 440,000 ha of cultivated forests of rapid growing species such as eucalyptus and pines. Moreover, it offers one of the greatest potentials for economic and ecological development. In terms of biodiversity, the Congo Basin is incontestably the richest area of Africa. It is a gigantic reservoir of carbon. Equally, with the River Congo and its tributaries, the basin is a huge fresh water reserve. Presently, some 100 million people - just over half of whom are citizens of the DRC - live in the basin, according to the Central African Forestry Commission, known as COMIFAC. COMIFAC says of the countries in this basin, only in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo (ROC) have people been moving increasingly into urban centres. In the other countries, 65 percent of their people live in the rural areas and depend, for the most part, on the forest for their livelihood. In a presentation on the Congo Basin during a heads of state summit on 5 February in Brazzaville, COMIFAC said: "The forest is the main source of energy and food for its inhabitants, whose numbers are increasing rapidly due to a high birth rate: It provides coal for cooking, bush meat for protein, and medicinal plants, in place of modern medicines." But COMIFAC added, "A recent analysis of Poverty Reduction Strategy Documents shows that forests and their role in the reduction of poverty are still being ignored." For most people of Central Africa, environmental and forest degradation translates directly into worsening living conditions and actually threatens the survival of the poorest people. "Although forests are not the best way to haul people out of poverty, they actually constitute the [safety] net for their survival, where they retain their ecological integrity," a COMIFAC official said. Diversity of the Congo Basin's wealth The Congo Basin's forests are rich in endemic, rare or threatened animal species, including elephants and other large mammals. They contain many fauna species.
[DRC] Men guiding their boats through the Sumbuku river in central congo
Men guide their boats through a river in the DRC. In the background is a part of the Congo forest
All told, the forests of the basin are host to some 400 species of mammals; 1,086 species of birds, 216 species of amphibians, 280 species of reptiles and more than 900 species of butterflies. The basin accounts for 80 percent of the savannah gorillas, some 4,000 elephants and 9,000 chimpanzees. "This population is little known. Inventories have not been frequent," an expert of Green Peace, an international NGO to protect the environment, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IRIN. Some animals such as lions and elephants are protected, the latter particularly so because its ivory fetches high prices on the international market; as well as the panther; as well as the Okapi, a ruminant; and giant monkeys. DRC head of state Joseph Kabila, who participated in the second summit on the conservation and long-term management of forest ecosystems organised on 5 February in Brazzaville - announced that the first intergovernmental world conference on the preservation of large primates would be held in September in Kinshasa. To guarantee the survival of these species, the countries of the Congo River Basin have been creating protected zones, covering a total of about 37.91 million ha, including 35 national parks. The future of these forests is threatened by illegal logging, the poaching of animals and the presence or emergence of diseases such as the Ebola virus. Illegal trade in forest products fuel deforestation "In terms of degradation of the world's forestry resources, there is a gap [reduction]. Each year 14 million ha of forests worldwide disappear. Those of the Congo Basin have not spared," Jean Prospere Koya, an FAO expert and former Congolese minister for water and forestry resources, said. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said 934,000 ha of forest were lost each year in the Congo Basin. The rate of deforestation varies from one country to the other in the subregion but all told, according to the FAO, 8.26 million ha of forest have been lost in the Congo Basin between 1990 and 2000, equivalent to a loss of 137,000 ha a year. According to FAO, there are two main causes for the progressive reduction of forest in the countries of the basin. It consists notably of shifting cultivation and the felling of trees for firewood. Firewood production was estimated at 67 million cm in 1998. In Central Africa, agriculture has expanded around populated areas along the major roads. The level of reforestation is still low, the FAO says. It estimates that only 300,000 ha have been reforested. French President Jacques Chirac, who attended the Brazzaville summit, said the illegal trade in tropical wood from the basin will lead to considerable economic losses for the countries in the order of €10 million to €15 million (US $12.96 million to $19.45 million) each year. Moreover, animal species of the basin are subject to of unprecedented poaching. Poachers for various reasons kill animals, whose presence would be beneficial for ecotourism. The bongo (a large monkey found in the two Congos) is highly valued for its skin, which is used in the West to make shoes. The same goes for elephants whose ivory is highly prized by jewellers.
[Guinea] The effects of Deforestation in Southern Guinea
The effects of deforestation in southern Guinea: Does a similar fate wait the Congo River Basin?
"Smugglers and poachers are hurting the national economy. All the products of their activities are sold to foreigners who make huge profits," Henri Djombo, the Republic of Congo minister for the economy, forests and the environment, said. Poaching can only prevent partners from investing in tourism, Djombo added. Poaching often targets both land and marine animals, especially turtles. It has taken on worrying proportions in the past 10 years because of the circulation of small arms in ROC, DRC and CAR, which have experienced repeated civil wars. The other scourge that constitutes a real danger is the Ebola virus, even if it is contained to the border between ROC and Gabon. The source of the virus is not yet known. Indications gathered from the field by Magdalena Bermejo, a Spanish primatologist, show that it is spreading to the biggest reserve in central Africa, the Odzala Park in northern ROC. The park is under the protection of the Forest Ecosystems of Central Africa (ECOFAC, a project financed by the EU). It reportedly hosts more than 20,000 of the 75,000 plains gorillas shared between the ROC and Gabon. In 2003, Ebola decimated 500 of the 800 primates that populated the sanctuary of Lossi situated not far from Odzala Park. When the Ebola epidemic appeared in 1970 in the DRC, more precisely in the zone of Kikwit, dozens of people were killed. The virus kills 50 percent to 90 percent of cases. "Ebola should not be allowed to reduce to nil all the efforts made to conserve the fauna of the world's left lung," Djombo said. An international group of 29 partners - countries of the basin, the G8, international NGOs, UN agencies such as the FAO, which brought its expertise - are financing the 2004-2013 convergence plan, a platform of priority actions for the development of the forest sector. COMIFAC is implementing this plan. An investment of $1.3 billion is needed. The process of conservation of the forest ecosystem of the basin also involves other states, including Chad. Burundi, Rwanda and Sao Tome e Principe joined the effort during the Brazzaville summit. The will expressed by all these states to manage their forest resources rationally could be explained by the fact that these resources are exhaustible. They are destined to replace petrol that has since independence in the 1960s constituted the primary source of exports for most of these countries. Congo Forest Basin Partnership: www.cbfp.org Congo Basin: www.worldwildlife.org

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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