There is an urgent need to find a solution to protect the remaining intact forests in the Congo Basin, while also respecting the rights of forest dependent and indigenous communities. Unless new conservation approaches are developed, these forests will be lost within this century.
New research published last Friday by a team of experts led by University of Maryland professor Peter Potapov reveals that between 2000 and 2013 so-called "selective" logging accounted for 77% of Africa's total loss of Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs).[i] Home to millions of forest-dependent people, IFLs are reservoirs of biodiversity. These IFL's are not only the greatest terrestrial storage of carbon, they are also far more resilient to natural disturbance and effects of climate change than smaller forest areas.
Africa lost 101 000 km2, which is 10% of its IFL area (an area larger than Portugal) of which more than 90% was lost in the Congo Basin. At the current pace, all Congo Basin countries except DRC, will lose all of their IFLs within the next 60 years.
In a blow to accepted wisdom, the researchers found that Congo Basin logging concessions certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)[ii] had only a "negligible" impact on slowing IFL fragmentation.[iii] In fact, "the pace of IFL fragmentation due to selective logging in Central Africa is faster within FSC-certified concessions than outside them." FSC concessions "had the same or higher proportion of IFL area reduction than non-certified concessions." In Cameroon, IFL reduction in FSC concessions over the period was a staggering 84.5%. While FSC has committed to the protection of the "vast majority" of IFLs in its concessions, this policy initiative will only begin to be implemented this year.
Many Congo Basin Countries and their donor partners, like the Central Africa Forest Initiative (CAFI) rely on so called Sustainable Forest Management as a key pillar in their forest protection and carbon mitigating strategies. The outcomes of this study suggests that these governments and donors should reconsider their approach and instead invest in the establishment of protected areas for the protection of the most important remaining forests.
To illustrate their findings, the researchers mapped the concession of Industrie Forestière de Ouesso (IFO), owned by the Austria-based Danzer Holding and long promoted by the FSC as its flagship African operation in the Republic of Congo. Potapov et. al. found that this concession has been significantly eroding IFLs. IFO's massive logging road network has attracted new settlements and farming and in 2016 triggered what University of Maryland's Global Land Analysis and Discovery team calls "one of the largest forest fires ever observed in the rainforests of Central Africa."[iv]
The study's conclusions reinforce the urgent need to find a solution to protect the remaining intact forests in the Congo Basin, while also respecting the rights of forest dependent and indigenous communities. Unless new conservation approaches are developed, these forests will be lost within this century.
"We define an Intact Forest Landscape (IFL) as a seamless mosaic of forests and associated natural treeless ecosystems that exhibit no remotely detected signs of human activity or habitat fragmentation and is large enough to maintain all native biological diversity, including viable populations of wide-ranging species."
While remaining IFLs comprise only 20% of tropical forest area, they account for 40% of total aboveground tropical forest carbon. Large forest wildlands are the greatest terrestrial carbon stores, a function at risk from forest conversion (deforestation) and degradation. Small forest areas, even if pristine, have less potential for preserving wide-range species populations and have lower resilience to natural disturbance and effects of climate change.
[ii] FSC certification aims to ensure that products come from well managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. More here: https://ic.fsc.org/en/certification
[iii] The Congo Basin countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo) represent more than 80% of all IFL area in Africa.
[iv] The fire destroyed over 15,000 ha of upland open canopied forests. UMD GLAD, "Congo Basin forest fires of unprecedented extent detected by UMD GLAD alerts," 7 March 2016, https://www.facebook.com/UMDGLAD