The Cameroon government, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute (WRI) has published an updated interactive atlas to help monitor the country's vast woodlands, which cover over 60 percent of its territory.
The third edition of the Interactive Forest Atlas is a comprehensive system of computerized and paper documentation to help authorities monitor activities within forested areas. Authorities say that the new edition's innovations will reinforce forest governance and make it more effective.
Cameroon's forests play a vital role in the country's economy and its livelihoods, and their protection is crucial in the global fight against climate change.
The designers of the new atlas say that until now the country lacked a comprehensive information system to monitor and manage its forests, one reason why policies to manage and protect it have not been very effective.
"There was no integrated system to track the various forest uses, like logging concessions, community forests, hunting zones (and) illegal logging," explained the WRI's Betrand Tessa, an expert on Africa's Congo Basin forests.
GATHERING SCATTERED INFORMATION
"The information that was available was scattered among different institutions, wasn't publicly accessible, or was of a quality insufficient to support legality claims and effective land use decisions," he said.
According to Tessa, this exacerbated the unsustainable use of forest resources and sparked conflicts between competing forest users, such as loggers and community groups.
Speaking at the official launch of the atlas in Yaounde, the country's capital, Philip Ngole Ngwese, the minister of forestry and wildlife, said, "The government has been constantly taking measures to improve on forest governance and we think this atlas, with ample information on our forest resources, will help us to better improve on these policies,"
Cameroon's forests are the second largest in Africa, covering more than 23 million hectares (57 million acres). They account for more than 6 percent of the nation's GDP, the highest percentage of all countries in the Congo Basin, providing services and sustenance directly and indirectly to local communities and city dwellers alike.
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 (540,000 acres), according to the State of the World's Forests 2011 report issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The country needs to strengthen the management of its forests, experts say, and the forest atlas will help.
"One can only manage forests according to the quality and breadth of information at hand," said Matt Steil, WRI's Central Africa forest programme manager. According to Steil, the new atlas gives government and other stakeholders access to high-quality information on land and resource use through a simple mapping application.
"The data includes logging permits, community forests, large-scale agriculture and mining," he said. "The forest atlas helps improve coordination between ministries responsible for national planning, land-use allocation and natural resource management."
According to WRI, a variety of players are expected to make use of the atlas, including Cameroon's government, the private sector, research institutions, and civil society.
Government agencies will use the atlas to monitor and plan on-the-ground control of forest activities. The private sector can refer to it to decide where to site infrastructure projects, while research institutions will use the information to guide research activities or support findings. And civil society groups can use the atlas to resolve conflicts between competing interests and raise awareness of local communities' rights to sustainable forest management.
Climate experts have welcomed the project, which they say constitutes a big leap forward in tackling climate change in the Central African region.
Kenneth Angu Angu of the Central African Regional Programme for the Environment said that the atlas would help the government and other stakeholders preserve forest resources and fight climate change in the Congo Basin region in general.
"Forests are a renewable and dynamic resource, providing multiple benefits to different users, and (they) play a big role in preserving carbon stocks," Angu Angu said.
The Congo Basin forests store an estimated 25-30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas - in their vegetation, according to the Cameroon government.
"The protection of the Congo Basin forest in general will go a long way to alleviate poverty in the region through revenue generated from the eventual sale of carbon stocks," said forestry and wildlife minister Ngole Ngwese.
The ministry has been working with WRI since 2002 to jointly publish and update the forest atlas. The first version was published in 2005. The third edition, just published, includes an accompanying report, poster, desktop mapping application, and underlying spatial datasets.
Ngole Ngwese explained that this edition includes for the first time spatial information on agro-industrial plantations, which have recently become increasingly attractive to foreign investors due to growing global demand for biofuels.
"In addition to regularly updating atlas information, we will incorporate emerging themes, such as mapping carbon stocks in order to provide a logical base for managing REDD+ and tracking ecosystem services indicators," the minister said.
WRI says it is developing similar atlases for other Congo Basin countries, including the Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo Brazaville, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to improve coordination of natural resource management between them.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.