Cameroon has joined a Congo Basin initiative that uses satellite imagery to monitor changes in forest cover in an effort to curb deforestation and help Central African countries access carbon finance.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Republic of Congo and Central African Republic (CAR) signed an agreement with the French government and geo-information provider Astrium Services ahead of U.N. climate talks in South Africa late last year.
Cameroon followed this June, gaining a license to use images from the SPOT satellite Earth Observation System which could assist in protecting its rich forest reserve.
Pierre Hélé, Cameroon's environment minister, said the collaboration "underscores the government's commitment to the fight against climate change through forest conservation".
Working with other countries will help achieve more effective results, he added. The total cost of the project in Cameroon is around $233 million, according to the agreement.
The forest area of the Congo Basin spans the borders of six countries - Cameroon, CAR, Republic of Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon - covering around 330 million hectares.
Cameroon's forests are the second largest in Africa, at more than 23 million hectares, and have a major role to play in the country's economic development.
But Cameroon lost 18 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, with an average annual decline of 0.9 percent, or 220,000 hectares, according to the State of the World's Forests 2011 report issued by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This runs counter to plans drawn up by the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC), which focuses on sustainable exploitation of the forest and its resources.
Cameroon needs to strengthen how it manages and controls the use of its forests, experts say - and the Congo Basin satellite imagery scheme offers a means of doing that.
"The satellite system will complement efforts put in place by the Cameroon government and neighbouring countries in the Congo Basin to fight unwanted forest exploitation and climate change," said Bruno Gain, France's ambassador to Cameroon, who signed the agreement on behalf of the French government.
The Agence Française de Développement (French Development Agency) is financing the provision of SPOT satellite imagery to Central African countries to support their participation in the U.N.-backed REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme. This aims to compensate developing countries for protecting their standing forests.
Aude Areste Lamendour of IGN France International, a French geographic information company that is co-managing the Congo Basin project, explained at the Yaounde signing ceremony that the initiative goes beyond the prevention of illegal forest exploitation.
"It also allows governments, public institutions and NGOs in Cameroon to take advantage of these images and of the value-added services associated, so that the data can support them in their projects and help them strengthen their knowledge of land use as well," he said.
Satellite imagery is essential for establishing up-to-date cartography, baseline maps and accurate measurements to monitor and evaluate REDD programmes and carbon stocks, he added.
The Central Africa initiative, which offers satellite images through a free portal, aims to map the entire Congo Basin, the world's second largest forest after the Amazon, explained Lamendour.
SPOT archive imagery is already being used to create baseline reference maps across the zone. Fresh datasets gathered in the coming years will track the evolution of forest cover to monitor future commitments under REDD, Lamendour said.
Climate experts have welcomed the project, which they say constitutes a big leap forward in tackling climate change in the Central African region.
The Congo Basin forests store an estimated 25-30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas - in its vegetation, according to the Cameroon government.
Zacharie Tchoundjeu of the World Agroforestry Centre in Yaounde told AlertNet that reducing carbon emissions from deforestation in developing countries is a key element of mitigating climate change, and could have positive social impacts too.
"The protection of the Central African forest in general will go a long to alleviate poverty in the region through revenue generated from the eventual sale of carbon stocks," Tchoundjeu explained.
According to Cameroon's ministry of forestry and wildlife, spatial observation has been used for a long time by forestry professionals as a tool for planning, forest management, inventory work and mapping.
The new and archive satellite images will serve as reference data for the country and will contribute to more accurate analysis and more suitable development policies, as well as helping assess REDD projects, it said.
Environment minister Hélé noted that Cameroon is already involved in other international efforts to protect its forests and those of the wider Congo Basin.
It has contributed to five Congo Basin submissions to the U.N. climate change secretariat which have highlighted forest degradation and the role of sustainable forest management in REDD discussions, he said.
Cameroon is a member of the World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, and was awarded a $200,000 grant in November 2010 to put together a plan for participation in REDD. If this is approved, Cameroon will be eligible for a further $3.4 million for its implementation.
The west Central African nation is also engaged in the European Union's Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade process to combat the illegal exploitation of forest resources.