By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
YAOUNDE, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cameroon's government plans to restore 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of deforested land to redress the challenges of dwindling forests and help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Local councils, nongovernmental organisations and businesses are backing the plan, which will be accompanied by efforts to conserve indigenous forest.
Launching the scheme last month, Hele Pierre, Cameroon's minister of environment and nature protection, said it was the biggest such project yet undertaken in the species-rich Congo Basin, home to the world's second-largest tropical rainforest.
"By restoring our unproductive landscapes, we will help local communities develop sustainably, increase their resilience to climate change and contribute to climate change mitigation," Pierre said.
But environmental experts say that while forest restoration is welcome, there is an even more critical need to protect existing forests, which provide the greatest benefits in terms of limiting climate change and protecting biodiversity.
Cameroon's forests are the second largest in Africa, at more than 23 million hectares. The government says they have a major role to play in the country's economic development as well as the fight against climate change and in meeting global forest conservation targets.
But in recent years, Cameron has seen a surge in deforestation and forest degradation. A report by Global Forest Watch shows forest loss in Cameroon of 777,000 hectares between 2001 and 2015, with half of this occurring since 2012.
Experts say the losses not only hurt ecosystems and drive climate change but hit the country's economy as well.
"The economic and environmental impact of forest loss is really immeasurable, necessitating urgent measures to redress the problem," said Paul Donfack, a consultant with the African Forest Forum.
The government says it is tackling the deforestation problem on two fronts, by reinforcing forest management to protect existing forests and moving to restore those lost.
"We think both actions on protecting existing forest and restoring new ones will help significantly reduce the forest loss gap," Pierre said.
CASH TO LOCAL LEVEL
The restoration programme, which is scheduled to run until 2030, is part of the Bonn Challenge initiative on forest restoration launched by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2011, the minister said.
The project is kicking off with the participation of 183 bodies nationwide, including 74 local councils, 36 non-governmental organisations, and business bodies.
The government says local councils will receive FCFA 500 million ($820,000) annually to plant new forest in their areas, while some chiefdoms (village administrative areas) in vulnerable regions will receive FCFA 70 million ($115,000) annually in government support.
Participants in the forest restoration initiative say having non-governmental groups working on the project will be "critical" to helping it succeed.
Such groups need to "accompany and push government to aggressive actions that will secure the country's rich forest resources", said Zachee Nzoh Ngandembou, CEO of the Center for Environment and Rural Transformation, a Cameroonian NGO that is backing the forest restoration programme.
Both government and environment experts agree it is unusual for them to be collaborating on sustainable forest management.
"By working together we hope to make much greater impact in one of the biggest forest operations ever realised in the Congo Basin region," Pierre said.
Ngandembou said that forest conservation on Mt Cameroon is critical in the provision of drinking water to both Cameroon and neighbouring countries.
"Many economic and social services, like supply of water for drinking and dam construction for hydro-electricity, depend on forest. If you don't have the forests you can't have these services," he said.
"It makes real economic sense for both the government and the private sector to invest in reasonable forest projects and encourage greater government regulation and control of forest resources to reap the maximum benefits," he added.
SAVING FORESTS FIRST
Julius Chuezi Tieguhong, a forest researcher in Cameroon, said indigenous forests have the potential to store more carbon, harbour greater biodiversity and regulate climate better than a reforested areas.
He advised that while embracing both approaches, Cameroon's government and its partners should not lose sight of the economic and environmental advantages of conserving existing forest over reforestation.
"It is important ... to understand the right balance for any sustainable forest programme," Tieguhong said.
Cameroon officials say they have made efforts to crack down on forest loss in recent years, though with limited success.
"We have multiplied and reinforced forest governance with heavy sanctions against defaulters in recent months and will continue to do so," said Philip Ngole Ngwese, the minister of forestry and wildlife.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)