The Congo River at sunset. Water Alternatives Photos, Flickr

The forests of Central Africa are vital, but how do we protect them?

A look at the state of the Congo Basin

Encompassing a vast swathe of Central Africa, the Congo Basin stands as the world’s second-largest rainforest and a hotspot of biodiversity.

On a local level, this complex ecosystem underpins the livelihoods of millions of people by providing essential resources like food, timber, water and medicinal plants. Globally, it plays a critical role in regulating climate patterns and sequesters.

Each year, the Congo Basin sequesters around 40 gigatons of carbon, according to Observatory for Central African Forests’ (OFAC) State Of The Forests 2021 report. That’s roughly equivalent to all of the carbon emissions that humans produce in a year.

It’s also home to the world’s largest tropical peatland complex, covering an estimated 145,500 square kilometers – around the size of Bangladesh – and storing around 30 gigatons of carbon.

But not all is well: the forests of Central Africa are under significant threat from human activities such as mining, logging and other extractive practices, as well as the impacts of the climate crisis.

To discuss how to address these challenges using the latest data-driven strategies, more than 700 experts, practitioners and policymakers gathered in Bonn, Germany, and online for the OFAC Hybrid Forum: What is the state of Central African forests?on 20 June.

Here’s what they found.

Yangambi DRC
Palm tree plantation near Yangambi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF, Flickr

What challenges do Central African forests face?

Despite their vast size and importance, Central Africa’s forests face a number of significant challenges.

First, many Central African economies rely heavily on cash crops like palm oil, cocoa and coffee. These crops are often grown on large-scale plantations, which can be a major driver of deforestation as large areas of forest are cleared to make way for monoculture farming.

Oil palm alone accounts for half a million hectares of surface area in Central Africa, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon and Cameroon.

Mining, roads and other infrastructure can also have a devastating impact, destroying and fragmenting forested areas, causing direct damage as well as opening the path for further exploitation.

Around 5 percent of protected areas in Central Africa are impacted by official mining claims, while a full 50 percent are covered by extractive contracts relating to the oil industry. Illegal extractive industries are also widespread.

What’s more, local communities that have traditionally relied on the forest for resources and subsistence may be forced into unsustainable practices due to poverty and lack of alternative opportunities. This can include slash-and-burn agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering practices that put pressure on already threatened species.

Logging is also having a serious impact on Central African forests, with 18 million hectares of tropical moist forests have disappeared since 2000. Around 30 percent of the region’s forest area is currently used for timber exploitation, according to the State of the Forests 2021 report.

While managed logging concessions play a significant role in some Central African economies, unregulated or poorly managed logging practices can lead to overharvesting and damage to the wider forest ecosystem.

“We have seen a trend in the last 10 years: deforestation is increasing in concessions even though we have a sustainable management plan,” said Guillaume Lescuyer, a researcher at CIRAD and a specialist in decentralized forest resource management.

“Since 2010, there has been a doubling or even quadrupling of deforestation in the concessions under management plans, and this is something of real concern.”

Type Wombi Biyela Dilingi
Type Wombi Biyela Dilingi speaks at the OFAC Hybrid Forum on 20 June 2024. Jörn Wolter

This also exemplifies one of the major issues that underpins the other challenges: a lack of governance and enforcement of forestry regulation, which can make it difficult to control illegal logging, mining and encroachment on protected areas.

“When it comes to forest management, there is a huge degree of non-conformity with existing laws,” said Type Wombi Biyela Dilingi, an advisor in charge of forest and peatland protection at the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainable Development of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“There is a lack of support, a lack of capacity building and a lack of funding in order to secure sustainable forest governance.”

This undermines conservation efforts and reduces the effectiveness of any sustainable forestry practices that are in place.

How can we address the challenges that Central African forests face?

Many of the experts at the event agreed that to address these challenges, we first need to understand them – which in turn requires scientific data on which to make actionable decisions.

“We need data to be able to manage the forests in central Africa,” said Damase Khasa, a professor of agroforestry at Université Laval.

Richard Eba’a Atyi and Damase Khasa
Richard Eba’a Atyi and Damase Khasa discuss the role of technology in sustainable forest management and OFAC. Jörn Wolter

“It is difficult to manage natural resources if we have no information about them,” concurred Richard Eba’a Atyi, regional coordinator for Central Africa at CIFOR-ICRAF. “Science is needed to inform those in charge of decision-making.”

It’s not only about collecting that data but also how it is disseminated. Journalist Afy Malungu, outreach program manager for Africa at the Pulitzer Center, explained that the importance of Central African forests isn’t being reflected at the local and regional level due to a lack of available information.

“Everyone can really benefit from those ecosystems, but we need to have information to be able to promote it,” said Malungu. “I think it is really important to have knowledge and access to information for the Congo Basin.”

Without widespread information, it is hard to rally support for any sustainable management plans. However, collecting and using this data will come at a price. “This requires not only human but also financial resources,” explained Eba’a Atyi.

One of the major concepts being developed to address this is the “Fair Deal.” This mechanism would financially compensate Central African countries for protecting their rainforests and the environmental benefits they provide, like carbon storage and biodiversity.

It would use long-term funding from public, private and philanthropic sources, which would be used for sustainable development projects that protect forests and support local communities.

“It is no longer development assistance and development cooperation alone – it is a payment for the international public good on a big scale rather than the basis of their own economic development,” explained Dr Christian Ruck, Facilitator at Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP).

“This is the fair deal. You have to make conservation competitive against destructive alternatives.”

Afy Malungu
Afy Malungu addresses the OFAC Hybrid Forum. Jörn Wolter

Protecting Central African forests

The forests of Central Africa are a unique and vitally important ecosystem on both a local and global level, but many interconnected challenges are currently driving a wave of destruction. To curb them, we must invest in the collection and use of data as well as the financial mechanisms that enable it.

And the conservation and sustainable management of Central African forests is about more than protecting forests. It’s also about the innumerable local and global benefits of such conservation.

More than 60 million people depend on Central Africa’s forests for their livelihoods. Without an intact forest, these communities risk collapse – but equally, they must be at the heart of efforts to protect the ecosystem they live in.

“It’s not conservation for conservation’s sake but also for the benefit of the local communities and Indigenous Peoples who live there,” said Aurelie Flore Koumba Pambo, co-facilitator at CBFP.

“If we have those forests standing there today, it is because people are taking care of them.”

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