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Lowland and swamp forests, forest savannas, and the mighty Congo river make up the 500 million acres of the Congo Basin, the second largest tropical rainforest on the planet. When standing below the trees, the vaulted canopy of leaves blocks out most of the sunlight and traps moisture making a trek along the forest floor dark as night, and very wet.
Many years ago, I visited the basin in the center of Cameroon as a volunteer to study cocoa and coffee agroforestry parklands. As always when I visit a new ecoregion, I brought binoculars to add to my bird list, though I am not so much of a twitcher – or avid birder – that I tear out pages one by one from my bird guide when I’ve seen the species in real life.
On this visit, I spent a lot of time in the village and close to the Bedzan Pygmy community, but I wanted to go further into the dense forest beyond the paths. After a half-hour of concerted effort, I looked back and realized that I had only covered a few meters. The Congo Basin is home to more than 10,000 plant species and on that short trek, a couple of them were enough to entangle me.
Beyond birds, I also dreamed of seeing chimpanzees and forest elephants. I’ve always been fascinated with how elephants evolved to live in the forest, and how the forest has evolved to depend on them. The elephants are essential for dispersing and germinating several tree species, and they play a huge role in how trees are distributed and overall forest structure.
What exploring the basin on foot may not reveal to the naked eye is the wide expanse of tropical peatland, an area larger than England, that harbors 30 billion metric tons of carbon. That is the equivalent of three years’ worth of the world total fossil fuel emissions, or 20 years of greenhouse emissions from the United States. If this peatland were to be destroyed – through deforestation or industry – a large portion of that carbon would be released into the atmosphere.
This tropical rainforest is a shared global asset that is critical to the planet’s health. It is one of the three key-areas of the planet that regulates moisture transport, rainfall patterns, and the global climate. The way this regulation happens is complex, but the regional and global climate depends on the health of these forests. And, like the increasingly rare great apes, this asset is in desperate need of protection.
The GEF’s most recent strategy, GEF-7, includes a Congo Basin Sustainable Landscapes (CBSL) program that works in partnership with six national governments – Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo – to protect this region of the world. As part of the newly launched innovative Impact Program on Sustainable Forest Management, CBSL uses a holistic approach to transformational change and sets up the basis for land use planning instruments to ensure the landscapes of the Congo Basin are protected. It focuses primarily on the heart of the Congo basin where there are dense rainforests with high carbon stocks, globally important biodiversity, and forest-dependent people. These landscapes are shared by several countries, requiring that the national governments work together to plan land use, implement local governance models, and adopt common measures to fight wildlife poaching, trafficking, and illegal logging.
The CBSL directly responds to immediate threats to the Congo Basin’s vitality to save large patches of intact forests, but it also prepares for the near future where agriculture will expand to involve agribusiness and industrial crops. Several countries are counting on natural resources – like land and wood and extracted products like oil and mining resources – to grow their national economies.
GEF-7 is a potential turning point. With careful planning and adequate support from local and international partners, it is possible to save the large, intact forests, biodiversity hotspots, and forest dependent people’s way of life, and support the countries in the region to adopt more sustainable development paths.
The Congo Basin represents an opportunity because the forests are still in good shape, with low forest destruction and degradation rates. We have time to keep them this way if we learn from previous experience in the other forests of the world, like the Amazon and in Indonesia, and set a different course. The forests, plants, and wildlife depend on our ability to anticipate and address future challenges. The elephants and great apes that live in the Congo Basin do not and cannot live elsewhere in the wild. CBSL will include projects that support inclusive conservation practices, and leverage law enforcement and local community involvement to reduce poaching.
The CBSL program also focuses on ensuring that people who depend on the forest to live are engaged and empowered in the process of land use planning, as well as conservation initiatives. These people live in extreme poverty; they are the first ones affected when the landscapes are destroyed. The challenges for these communities are many: protecting their ways of life, building on their traditional knowledge to protect and manage the forests, while giving access to other resources such as education and healthcare that works with how they live rather than against it.
The CBSL is dedicated to engaging these forest-dependent people along with other local communities to make change in their villages and countries. During the recent GEF regional consultation in Libreville in January, 2019, representatives of the civil society, local communities and forest dependent people shared their intimate knowledge of existing networks at regional and national levels, their time-tested strategies of protecting and managing forests, and how we could build on their knowledge and experiences. The CBSL program will ensure continued dialogue among all of these project stakeholders through planning and implementation.
The Libreville regional consultation was a unique opportunity for representatives from the governments, GEF agencies, and their experts to meet face-to-face with subject-area experts in many fields – including biodiversity, indigenous people, and the private sector. Attendees of the session, while challenged, engaged in important dialogue, identified problems with previous approaches, and mapped out ways to move forward. At the end of the consultation, national government representatives presented how they would modify their expressions of interest in view of being part of the CBSL. It was good to hear tremendous feedback in this session and sense the countries’ strong ownership of the process. The Congo Basin consultation was part of the series of GEF stakeholder dialogues taking place globally throughout the past several months. You can read about this inclusive initiative in our recent story.
The GEF is now reviewing these expressions of interest in view of constituting the best possible program. The GEF cannot act alone but provides a unique opportunity to join the resources from international donor governments, national governments, and partners to protect the people, plants, and animals that live in the Congo Basin. Together we can ensure that this amazing tropical rainforest continues to play its critical role in the health of our planet for generations to come.