Congo Basin Forest Partners Hold Initial Meeting

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2003 (ENS) - The first international meeting of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, an economic development and conservation program for six Central African countries, is set to open in Paris on Tuesday. Under pressure from population growth, poverty, unsustainable resource use, and political instability, the Congo Basin forests are the focus of a new initative by a partnership of 29 governments, international organizations, environmental and business interests - the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.

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Forest in the Congo Basin. (Photo courtesy WWF-Cameroon)
The tropical forests of Africa's Congo Basin are some of the last remaining large areas of primeval forested lands in the world, second only to the Amazon Basin. These forests support rare and endangered species such as the eastern lowland gorilla, mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, white rhino, okapi, and Congo peacock. They provide food, materials and shelter for over 20 million people and play an important role as a sink for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Launched in September 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Congo Basin Forest Partnership seeks to promote economic development and alleviate poverty through conservation programs in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Republic of the Congo.

At the Paris meeting, representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, Canada and South Africa will work with international organizations such as the World Bank, and IUCN-World Conservation Union, and more than a dozen NGO and private sector groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the World Resources Institute and the Center for International Forestry Research.

"The meeting is designed to harness the ideas and energy of all the many partners in the Congo Basin Forest Partnership into a long term plan to conserve the incredible natural resources of the Congo Basin forest area," said Jeffry Burnam, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the environment.

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Gathering of elephants in the Central African Republic (Photo by Lee Poston courtesy WWF)
Burnam said the partnership is a "critical response" to the sustainable development needs of the peoples of the Congo Basin. "It has set the standard for sustainable development initiatives by identifying collaborative approaches that concurrently advance economic growth, social development and environmental stewardship," he said.

A U.S. spokesman said the Paris meeting will allow government representatives and officials responsible for forest policy and projects to discuss their expectations and respective contributions to the partnership, identify areas of possible collaboration and cooperation, and come up with a schedule for the implementation of partnership projects.

The United States plans to invest up to $53 million through 2005 to help the six African countries develop a network of national parks and protected areas, and to help local communities better manage the forest and wildlife resources of the Congo Basin.

U.S. funds will be provided through the U.S. Agency for International Development's Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE). Up to $15 million a year for at least the next three years has been earmarked for the project, an increase of up to $12 million annually, and there is hope for future commitments.

The funds will be used to establish sustainable means of livelihood through sustainable agriculture and integrated ecotourism programs.

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Logger in the forests of Cameroon (Photo courtesy Global Forest Watch)
The forests of the Congo Basin take in one-fourth of the world's rainforests. Covering more than 198 million hectares (764,482 square miles) in 1995, they are inhabited by more than half of Africa's wild plants and animals, including forest elephants and forest buffalo, and increasingly by logging and farming enterprises.

Over the past 20 years, for instance, the forests of Cameroon have been eroded. Large areas have become agricultural lands, and logging concessions are now found in the heart of intact forests in the eastern part of the country, according to Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute. This Washington, DC based organization is a member of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.

The government of Gabon, one of the six African countries in the partnership, announced at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that it would set aside 10 percent of its land mass for a system of national parks. Gabon previously had no national park system, but the country contains some of the most pristine tropical rainforests on earth, home to gorillas, chimpanzees, and forest elephants.

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Gorilla in the Congo Basin (Photo courtesy Save the Congo)
A report released in June 2002 by the World Resources Institute showed that Gabonís forests are rapidly being conceded to a handful of logging companies who export primarily one tree species to only a few countries around the world.

"Gabon has vast forest resources but the rapid growth of logging activity threatens it," said Bruno Mikissa, one of the authors of the report, "A First Look at Logging in Gabon."

The Congo Basin protection initiative originated in 1999 when the leaders of five countries in the region signed the Younde Declaration at a Forest Summit in Younde, Cameroon attended by WWF President Emeritus HRH Prince Philip.

"Success is often elusive in the fight against global deforestation, but here we have a rare chance to turn the tide and help save these precious forests and the wildlife they harbor," said Bruce Cabarle, director of WWF's Global Forest Campaign at the time of the Younde Declaration.

"The key now," he said, "is for these Central African governments to reach across their national boundaries and work in partnership with international aid agencies, such as the World Bank and the European Commission, to put forest protection into practice on the ground."

The Congo Basin Forest Partnership has set some priorities for its activities - monitoring and evaluation of forest ecosystems, reinforcement and creation of protected forest areas, strengthening of capacities and training, participative management and agro-forestry, establishment of markets for environmental services offered by forests, sustainable management of harvested forests.

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Forest in the Congo Basin (Photo by Lee Poston courtesy WWF)
International environmental organizations have committed to matching the U.S. government's financial contribution to the partnership, and have announced plans to expand their conservation programs to the 11 forest regions that have been identified as critical to biodiversity conservation in the Congo Basin.

Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund all announced their intention to raise an additional $37.5 million of new money over the next 10 years for their joint efforts in the Congo Basin. The three groups worked closely with the governments involved to set priorities for protecting the most important lands in the region.

"What is significant here is that the governments of the region, as well as the U.S., have adopted the landscape conservation priorities based on good science and careful consultation with the people of the area," said Brooks Yeager, vice Ppesident of WWF. "Saving these key areas will make all the difference for the future of rainforest wildlife in Africa."

"These new financial commitments help to protect one of the world's most important rainforest wilderness areas, including the watershed of the second largest river system on Earth - this on a continent that is increasingly suffering from major water shortages," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International. "The future of the Congo Basin depends on the conservation of natural resources and the development of appropriate governance of those resources."