Comment: Mustering the will to save Central Africa's forestsGland, Switzerland: It is still possible to fly low over the Congo Basin in central Africa and detect barely a trace of humankind. In fact, the vast tracts of tropical rainforest - the second largest area in the world after the Amazon - are home to a variety of pygmy tribes. But these indigenous people have lived in the forests as hunter-gatherers for centuries, without leaving any discernible scars on the landscape. The same cannot be said for the increasing numbers of newcomers to the region.
Until about ten years ago, the forests of the Congo Basin, with their outstanding biodiversity, had remained largely free of commercial pressures. There were some timber companies extracting valuable tree species from certain areas. This was done by means of highly selective felling and did not lead to incursions by farmers using the timber roads to penetrate the forests, as has happened in South America, for example. But anyone who thought this great natural treasure house might be safe was sadly mistaken.
The world's growing demand for timber, especially in China and other emerging economies, has led Asian and European logging companies to turn greedy eyes on the Congo Basin, with the result that there has been an explosion of largely unregulated exploitation of the forest resources. Timber concessions now cover almost the entire area of Cameroon and Gabon, and the loggers are now moving into politically unstable countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. In 1990, the volume of timber exported from the Congo Basin to Asia was less than 200,000 cubic metres, but by 1997 the total had risen to more than two million cubic metres. To put this in context, timber exports from Equatorial Guinea have trebled in just four years. In Gabon the area allocated to logging concessions covers a staggering 800,000 hectares with pressure to increase that to more than two million hectares. Conservationists predict that within the next five years, most of the region's forests that are not currently protected will be suffering at least some logging activity.
The significance of this threat cannot be over-estimated. The forests of Africa are not just important for the continent, but they represent a vital global resource because they are among the richest ecosystems in the world. The Congo Basin, for instance, contains by far the largest number of African elephants. In some areas the population of the sub-species of forest elephant reaches the exceptionally high density of three animals per square kilometre.
There one will also find the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, and the okapi, a forest giraffe that was unknown until the beginning of this century.
Yet critical though the situation has become, there remains a remarkable opportunity to establish an exemplary system of forest protection and conservation. Of course it will not be easy. West Central Africa is a region of political upheaval, high levels of government debt and economic deprivation arising from the steady decline in the prices of the commodities on which these countries depend for their income - the very reason why timber exports have appeared to be an attractive option.
There is also a long history of poor management of resources, so that the idea of conservation and sustainable development requires a marked shift in the prevailing culture. On the other hand, large forest areas do remain intact, and low population densities mean that the pressure on land is considerably less intense than in some other developing countries.
Most striking, however, are the emerging signs of a political will towards forest conservation that is beginning to produce cross-border collaboration. Just a few weeks ago, Britain's Prince Philip, President Emeritus of the conservation organization WWF, chaired a Forest Summit hosted by President Biya of Cameroon in the capital city of Yaoundi. The declared aim of the summit was nothing less than to "discuss and conclude new transnational protected areas in the Congo Basin".
The summit was attended by the presidents of Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic and Chad, along with the Vice-President of Gabon and a senior minister representing the president of Congo-Brazzaville. It resulted in the Yaounde Declaration, which may prove to be one of the most important events in the history of forest conservation. For not only did the heads of state declare their support for the principle of sustainable development and the conservation of biodiversity, but they also committed themselves to a series of initiatives that mark a turning point for government involvement in protecting the region's forest resources.
Top of the list is a commitment to create cross-border protected areas in Central Africa and to invite the cooperation of neighbouring countries that did not attend the summit. This will be part of a new economic order in the forests that will encourage sustainable resource management, conservation and research into the forest ecosystems. The leaders also agreed to harmonize national policies such as adherence to the internationally recognized timber certification system, and to encourage the participation of both business and rural communities in the practical application of sustainable development plans.
None of this, of course, can happen without help in this troubled and challenging part of the world. The national governments will have to work with the World Bank, the European Commission, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations in order to turn the Yaoundi Declaration into reality. Regrettably, there has been some scepticism in this regard, not least from the European Union. Critics suggest that the summit was little more than an attempt by some Central African heads of state to appear more benevolent than they are, and to dispel the aura of corruption that surrounds their administrations.
In some cases, this is perhaps a legitimate worry. Yet there was a certain irony in the fact that just hours before a representative of the European Commission was to make his presentation at the summit, the news came that a damning report was now accusing the Commission of ignoring fraud, corruption and mismanagement. The presentation was withdrawn.
The forests of the Congo Basin are too important for the world to wait until the governments that have the power to influence their future are all benign and stable democracies. If and when that day comes, there may be little left worth saving.
The Yaoundi Declaration is a positive step and should be seized on by those concerned with preserving biodiversity, whatever reservations they might have about the authorities they must work with in Central Africa. In any case, recent events in Brussels suggest that we Europeans should be wary of rushing to cast stones at regimes we grandly consider to fall below our own standards.