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Tuesday, 3 September, 2002, 07:51 GMT 08:51 UK
Congo basin forests under threat
Burnt forest
Global deforestation is 40% greater now than in 1992
More than $100 million is to be invested by five countries, the World Bank and a number of conservation groups to protect the forests of Africa's Congo basin.

This region, which includes parts of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Gabon, contains one of the world's largest primary rainforests - second only to the Amazon.

The major partnership plan was presented at the Johannesburg Sustainable Development Summit.

Logging, shifting agriculture, population growth and the oil and mining industries are all putting pressure on the Congo basin forests, which are disappearing at the rate of 0.6% a year.

France, Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA will work with the World Bank and a number of NGO partners to monitor and evaluate the forest ecosystem of the region, create a regional network of protected forests and better manage the harvesting of forest resources.

Globally, tropical forests support more than 500 million people but, according to World Bank estimates, every year an area of forest three times the size of Belgium is cut down.

Biodiversity and development

So far, $90 million has been pledged for the partnership project and another $35 million is being sought from both public and private donors. The United States has contributed the majority of the funds already pledged - $35 million.

Stressing the importance of the region's forests, a World Bank report says that the protection of the forest and its diverse species is vital for sustainable economic development of the countries which make up the basin.

Congo basin forests
World's 2nd largest forest
Contains 26% of world's remaining rainforest
Covers 2.1 million square km
62.6 million people dependent on its resources
Contains unique biodiversity resources

This development requires "an effective strategy for biodiversity conservation and management".

"All the project countries are heavily dependent on their natural resources, and none can afford the economic, ecological and social costs resulting from their destruction or serious impairment," the World Bank says.

It warns of the danger of ecosystem destruction and species extinction through over-exploitation of timber resources, rainforest destruction resulting from shifting agriculture and habitat loss through road construction in forest areas.

Illegal logging

According to the British Guardian newspaper, a background paper prepared for the Johannesburg summit, says that within 15 years about a fifth of all the region's forests could be lost.

The newspaper notes that 10 years ago, the forests were "virtually untouched" but logging operations, with little or no monitoring by governments, have begun to take a heavy toll.

The environmental group Global Witness, employed as an independent forest resources monitor by the Cameroon Government, has detailed extensive illegal logging by many companies involved in legal timber extraction there.

Lowland gorilla
Only a few thousand lowland gorillas survive

In the DR Congo, illegal logging is believed to be an even more serious problem with monitoring rendered impossible by years of civil war.

Seven neighbouring countries have sent troops into the DR Congo and this has exacerbated the problems of illegal logging and poaching of endangered forest species for ivory or for meat.

Species at risk

Illegal or uncontrolled logging is not only leading to the rapid depletion of valuable economic resources with minimal return for the countries involved, it is also leading to the destruction of the habitats of rare animal species.

Among the endangered creatures found in the Congo basin are the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee, the western lowland gorilla, forest elephants, and apes such as the drill and the mandrill, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The loss of forests, cutting of roads through vital habitats and the expansion of the "bush meat" trade all threaten these and other species.

Speaking at the Johannesburg summit, the world-renowned ape specialist Jane Goodall, said that efforts to save forest and animals must bring in timber companies as well as governments and conservation groups.

She said that chimp populations had declined from two million to 200,000 over the last century and that there were only a few thousand lowland gorillas left.

While logging was the main problem, the damage caused by timber firms was wider, she said.

Pygmy chimpanzee
The bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee is under threat

"When they build a road into the forest they give access to all sorts of people including hunters in the bush meat trade", she told the Reuters news agency.

Bush meat (often from endangered species) was sold as a delicacy as well as being a source of food for loggers.

When loggers or hunters moved on from an area, they had often killed most of the animals and deprived local people of a whole way of life in the forests.

The new Congo basin forest partnership seeks to involve timber companies through the International Tropical Timber Organisation and the African Timber Organisation, as well as conservation groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Global Forest Watch.

Key stories



See also:

03 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
27 Aug 02 | Correspondent
25 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
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