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After errors, Congo Basin forest effort restarts with new scrutiny

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 8 December 2015 19:51 GMT

A Congolese girl carries firewood, collected from a forest, in Bunagana town May 11, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena

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"Without results, we will not be able to sustain and increase the financial investment needed," donors warn

By Laurie Goering

PARIS, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Protecting increasingly threatened forests in central Africa's Congo Basin will require not just cash but African governments enforcing their own forest regulations while pulling their people out of poverty, donors said on Tuesday.

"At the end of the day, governments need to take responsibility" for forests, said Per Pharo, director of the Norwegian government's International Climate and Forest Initiative, which has committed more than $2 billion to protect forests in countries from Indonesia to Brazil.

Norway and Britain earlier this year withdrew funding from a $186 million Congo Basin Forest Fund after finding the project's governance "inconsistent", and saying there was little evidence the project was effectively supporting long-term protection of the region's forests.

Those are under increasing pressure from palm oil plantations, agricultural expansion and other development efforts.

"One lesson we've learned is that... unless we have an ability to establish trust, be clear on mutual expectations and be transparent and work together, (forest protection programmes) don't function. We are going to make mistakes," said Pharo, on the sidelines of U.N. negotiations in Paris aimed at securing a new global climate change deal later this week.

Protecting forests is widely seen as one of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce the emissions driving global warming. Loss and degradation of forests account for about 15 percent of emissions each year, conservation groups say.

But saving forests in a politically fragile region with "low-capacity project implementers and, at times, minimal political buy-in", has been difficult, according to Marigold Norman, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute.


In September, Norway and other donors launched a new Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) to restart protection efforts in the Congo Basin, which has become a growing target for the expansion of palm oil plantations as available land in Indonesia dwindles.

The initiative, which has received pledges of about $250 million so far, will focus efforts on "government reforms and attacking root causes of deforestation in central Africa", said Jens Holte, a political advisor to Norway's Ministry of Climate and Environment.

But representatives of Congo Basin countries said the fund lacks sufficient resources to help countries pursue badly needed sustainable development while protecting the region's tropical forests, the second largest behind the Amazon rainforest.

The money to support CAFI "is very little - it is really not enough", said Henri Djombo, Republic of Congo's forest economy minister.

When he goes to meetings where government officials try to decide whether to approve palm oil plantations, he talks about the potential financial advantage of preserving forests. But convincing others that cash in the future is better than cash in hand now is difficult, he said.

Luc Oyoubi, Gabon's minister of economy, employment and sustainable development, said his heavily forested country imports 84 percent of its food.

"We have two challenges," he said. "We need to preserve the tropical forest that is an asset to mankind, but we also need to produce food to feed the Gabonese people."

Three weeks ago, he said, the country finished a new land plan setting out which areas might be used for agriculture, mining, industrial development and forest protection to ensure territory is used in the most efficient way.

Democratic Republic of Congo, similarly, is spending $1 billion a year importing food, said Felicien Mulenda Kahenga, a coordinator from the country's finance ministry.

Any programme to preserve forests also needs to help DRC find ways to strengthen its food security, he said.

"How do we reconcile the need to have a good agricultural sector to respond to the needs of the population for food, and protect forests at the same time?" he asked.

Agricultural expansion in DRC is "in a pole position as an agent of deforestation", he added.


The new Central African Forest Initiative - which will work in DRC, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo and Central African Republic - is designed to take into account those competing demands on forests, backers say.

It requires participating countries to create national investment plans, backed by top government leaders, that address the pressures driving deforestation and allow for both forest preservation and better lives for people in the countries.

DRC and Gabon have already submitted their plans and donors hope a green light for funding could come early next year, Holte said. The other countries are in the processing of preparing their plans.

Henri Yav Mulang, DRC's finance minister, urged CAFI's board to approve projects and get money flowing as quickly as possible, saying pressure on the region's forests is rising fast.

But Holte warned that scrutiny of the new funding flows - which will require evidence of progress before additional money is released - will be high.

"If we do not achieve results, we will not achieve our common goal and our ambitious objectives," he said. "Without results, we will not be able to sustain and increase the financial investment needed."

The initiative is backed by funding from the European Union, Britain, France and Germany as well as Norway, and will receive technical advice from Brazil. (Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

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