- As leaders gather for the second Central African Heads of State Forest Summit in Brazzaville on 4-5 February, environmentalists warn that two thirds of the Congo Basin's forests could be lost within fifty years if illegal logging, poaching and smuggling of wildlife, and illicit bushmeat trade continue at the current level.
Generous pledges made at the first Congo Basin summit, in March 1999 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, resulted in millions of hectares of new forest protected areas, and important cross-border cooperation to safeguard endangered wildlife.
But according to the environmentalist group WWF, "much still needs to be done by the seven countries involved" - Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa (DRC), Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Together, these countries manage the Congo Basin, the second largest area of tropical forest in the world after the Amazon.
The richest ecosystems in Africa, the Congo Basin's forests are home to more than half of the continent's animal species, including most of the forest elephants left in Africa and the entire world's population of lowland gorillas. They also provide food, materials, and shelter to some 20 million people.
At the same time, the Congo Basin is also strongly threatened by deforestation in most of these countries. According to various sources, some 1.5 million hectares of forests are lost each year in the Congo Basin. If that speed is not lessened, two thirds of these forests may be lost within fifty years.
Major achievements have however been made during the last few years, especially since the 1999 Yaoundé summit. In particular Gabon has set aside huge new protected areas. Management of protected areas is slowly improving in most countries and the civil wars in Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa and the Central African Republic have mostly ceased, making more effective management possible.
WWF therefore today called for "new commitments and bold measures" at the Brazzaville summit, such as enforcement of efficient border controls, sound management practices of protected areas, improved governance and participation of civil society and local communities, and responsible forestry to save the Congo Basin forests.
- It is now almost six years since Central African leaders created history by getting together and taking action to save the Congo Basin forests, said Claude Martin, Director General of WWF. "Now, we are urging them to reconfirm their willingness, and to reinforce their efforts to protect this globally important natural heritage. This will involve improving governance and civil society participation," Mr Martin added.
In Brazzaville, WWF is expecting the Central African leaders will sign the first ever regional conservation treaty in Africa, and to establish trust funds to ensure sustained funding for its implementation on the ground.
Given this landmark treaty, WWF urged the international community to "significantly contribute" to the efforts made by these poor Central African nations through the Congo Basin Partnership, which is currently chaired by France and COMIFAC, the regional institution established to implement these programmes.
- As we celebrate the achievements, we must also acknowledge the challenges facing us, noted Mr Martin. "Attempts to save the forests of the Congo Basin will only succeed if adequate funding is secured to back up strong political decisions."
The first summit culminated in the signing of the Yaoundé Declaration, a 12-point action plan. At the second summit, leaders will review progress made on conservation in the Congo Basin. They will also welcome two more Central African nations - Angola and São Tomé and Príncipe - to the process.
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