2 October 2015

Africa: Challenges Ahead, but Congo Forest Deal a Promising First Step

press release

The forests of the Congo Basin are a vital resource for millions of people. They play a crucial role in the fight against global warming; a threat that every one of us living on planet earth should be extremely concerned by, to say the least. It goes without saying then that these forests must be protected at all costs. And that can only be achieved through a joint effort between African governments and other actors worldwide.

Sadly, despite repeated words from all parts to the contrary, the unfortunate facts on the ground in Congo Basin countries demonstrate that for years such efforts have either been inexistent or ineffectual.

Deforestation and forest degradation continues, undertaken to satisfy international demand and to the benefit of foreign economic interests and local elites. The millions who rely on the forest for their livelihoods see little or no benefit.

But this week at a summit of sustainable development at the United Nations in New York, six African countries agreed with donors on a plan to, what they call, "recognise and preserve" the value of the tropical forests of the Congo Basin.

The Central African Forest Initiative involves donors including Norway, Germany, the UK and the European Union who have agreed to provide financial support to six countries - the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Gabon, The Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea - so they can slow both illegal logging and the rate of forest conversion. The funds are also aimed at reducing poverty and contributing to sustainable development.

Quite lofty and challenging ambitions. But the initiative is commendable. We at Greenpeace believe that the protection of the rainforest can only be effective if there is a common and strong commitment of African governments and international donors.

The agreement should rightly be seen as a very important step forward. But any such agreement must always be backed by meaningful action on the ground. Countries and organizations sponsoring this agreement should establish strong pre-conditions for any disbursement of funds. They must ensure that existing laws in the countries of Central Africa are applied and that new laws to improve forest governance are enacted and enforced effectively. All laws which contradict the efforts of forests protection should be cancelled.

Last but not least, local and indigenous communities should be meaningfully involved in all stages of any decision making process. They depend on the forests and their participation should be reflected in final decisions.

The challenges in this cannot be underestimated. At Greenpeace Africa we spend the majority of time highlighting to Congo Basin governments, particularly here in Kinshasa, that their laws are not properly being enforced and showing them the social and environmental consequences if they are not.

Currently in the DRC, the government is currently flip-flopping over changes to the forest law that would theoretically make it far easier for foreign companies and interests to cut the country's trees down. A development that would hardly be in keeping with the spirit of the Central African Forests Initiative.

In Cameroon, we recently demonstrated that violations of the forestry code mean that shipments of illegal timber continue to leave the country's ports, headed for the EU, China and beyond.

Indeed there are other initiatives out there. In the New York Declaration on Forests signed barely a year ago, there are commitments to at least halve the rate of natural forest loss by 2020. Of the six countries signed up to this initiative, only the DRC have signed up for the New York declaration.

The will of the governments of the Congo Basin countries to protect their forests that is evident on paper through this new initiative should be translated into concrete measures against the current impunity and corruption that exists in the majority of forestry sectors in the region. Other key ingredients needed for this agreement to be a success are the implementation of effective and transparent monitoring and control systems and the institutional and technical strengthening of forestry agents and services.

If these mechanisms and preconditions are not instituted and, far more importantly, not respected, then this agreement will sadly end up as empty words.

Irène Wabiwa Betoko is the senior forest campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa

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