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Desertification threat in the Congo River Basin

Lumber mill in Mbaiki, Central African Republic (taken July 2002) IRIN
Lumber mill in Mbaiki, Central African Republic (July 2002)
Considered Earth's other ecological lung after the Amazon rainforest, the Congo River Basin - whose forests cover 200 million ha of the basin's total 520 million ha - may not be spared from the threat of desertification, according to a top United Nations official. "Desertification is not the advancing of deserts, but the eroding of soils due to three factors: agricultural practices, overgrazing and deforestation for heating and cooking purposes," Hama Arba Diallo, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention Against Desertification, said. The basin is a marine and forest ecosystem engulfing Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo (ROC). Since February 2005, it has been extended to include areas in Burundi, Chad, Rwanda, and Sao Tome e Principe. The basin alone represents 30 percent of Africa's vegetation coverage and 19 percent of the world's tropical forests. According to the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC), around 100 million people - 50 percent of them from DRC - live in the basin. The tropical forest is a source of energy and food for its inhabitants, and 65 percent of the basin’s residents owe their survival to forest products, COMIFAC said. The forest supplies them charcoal for cooking, bark, vegetables, fruits, honey, resins, game meat and medicinal plants. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 14 million ha of forest is lost worldwide each year, 934,000 ha of which is from the Congo Basin. Between 1990 and 2000, the basin shrunk by 8.3 million ha in size. The FAO said shifting agriculture and tree felling were the main causes for the progressive reduction of vegetation coverage in the basin. In addition, the commercial logging of tropical hardwood for export; poaching; and viruses like Ebola, which affects animals as well as humans, undoubtedly also upset the fragile ecosystem. "We do not know how long it will take for the degradation to reach peak heights in the Congo Basin. The lifespan and continuity of natural resources of Central Africa's subregion are not known," said Diallo, who added that the fertility of the soil had actually slowed down the effects of desertification in the basin. The dependency of some populations on the forest delays, if not prevents, the commercial exploitation of some tree species. Renaud Kiyenge heads the development of forest resources in Likoulala Department, in the far north of the ROC. He said the presence of pygmies had made it difficult to exploit the sapelli tree, a commercial hardwood used for making parguet floors and which is in great demand worldwide. Countries of the Congo River Basin do, with some difficulty, log and sell this wood. However pygmies oppose this practice, saying it deprives them of their source of food: caterpillars. Pygmies never cut down these trees at the trunk; only its branches in which they search for caterpillars. In fact, the pygmies see themselves as protecting the sapelli by eating the caterpillars, which they say destroy the trees. Preservation measures The Partnership with the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (PFBC) was launched during the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2002 to research and raise money for conservation of the region. The partnership includes the Congo Basin countries, the G8, environmental and nongovernmental organizations. To strengthen these actions, nine heads of state (eight from Central Africa, plus French President Jacques Chirac) met in Brazzaville on 5 February 2005 for a second summit on the protection and management of the ecosystem. They signed a treaty for the preservation of the forests, adopted a convergence plan estimated at US $1.3 billion and established COMIFAC. During this summit, France was assigned the role of facilitator for a two-year period. According to Eric Forni, the PFBC adviser for ROC, France will focus its attention on reinforcing regional cooperation; establishing a working group for funding; training African experts and building the capacity of various actors in the forest-environment sector (civil society, private sector, national NGOs, etc); reinforcing the capacity of the COMIFAC executive secretariat; improving governance within the framework of the Africa Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Initiative; and promoting activities for the preservation and management of durable forest ecosystems in Central Africa. Collectively and individually, the state leaders who took part in the Brazzaville summit were committed to taking concerted actions to stop the destruction of forests, preserve wildlife and properly manage water usage from the Congo River, one of the basin's largest water bodies, as well as other rivers. In September 2002, DRC organised the first global intergovernmental conference on large monkeys; at the end of which governments undertook to protect these primates in their reserves and parks, especially in areas that were the scene of fighting during times of conflict. In an effort to stop the illicit trade of wood from the Congo Basin, France on behalf of the all the states and partners of the PFBC undertook to bar all illicit trade in tropical hardwoods. Although not a great consumer of the world's hardwoods, France nevertheless is one of the largest buyers of timber from the Congo River Basin countries. France is the leading trade and financial partner of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon and ROC. In 2005, France published a document setting out the conditions for the sale of tropical hardwoods. The measure prohibits France from buying any tropical wood whose origin is unknown. Chirac had stated at the summit that the illicit sale of tropical wood in the Congo Basin leads to yearly economic losses, for all the countries in the area, of about 10 million to 15 million euros ($12 million to $18 million). Alain Marius Ngoya-Kessy, director of studies and planning in the ROC Ministry of Forest Economy and Environment, recently conducted an assessment of the partnership a year after the Brazzaville summit and has drawn up its sectoral programme on forests and environment. "It has allowed the government to have at hand an ideal framework capable of accompanying the development process and management of forests and environment," he said. Ngoya-Kessy said the programme aimed at "making the Congo convergence plan bankable" and immediately acceptable to donors by providing socioeconomic studies, pre-feasibility and feasibility studies, and structural projects. He said the plan also detailed the different budgets for the project. Convergence plan According to COMIFAC, the 10-year convergence plan is already functional, even though money for its effective implementation from now to 2013 has not yet been received. Diallo said the plan had not been followed by concrete action, which had hampered efforts to mobilise the necessary resources. COMIFAC said donors would like to release the money in accordance with procedures used by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. On the other hand, the Congo Basin countries want the funds placed in a trust that they could manage themselves. In the interim, the European Commission has given 38 million euros (about $45.2 million) to the Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa (Ecosystèmes Forestiers d’Afrique Centrale or ECOFAC), which is being developed in all eight countries of the subregion. Under this project, the ROC will receive the four billion francs CFA ($7.3 million) to be used for the preservation of protected spaces, notably the 13,200-sq km Odzala National Park - the country's largest animal reserve - in the northwest. Prior to the Brazzaville summit, the United States gave approximately $33 million through the Central African Regional Environment Programme. It pledged an additional $15 million in 2005. France has contributed approximately 50 million euros (about $59.5 million) to PFBC since 2003, excluding its contribution through the EU support to ECOFAC. In 2005, Germany pledged two million euros ($2.4 million) to be used by the aid council of COMIFAC. The Congo River Basin countries say they need this kind of donor help to support their nature conservation efforts, in line with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. "We are not asking the rich countries for charity, but for understanding and justice," Omar Bongo, the Gabonese president, said during the Brazzaville meeting.

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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