Congo Basin forests and FAO: deep roots supporting a sustainable future
Dan Rugabira, FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Central Africa and FAO Representative to Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe
Season’s greetings to InfoNews readers from Libreville, Gabon. Serving in this sub-region takes me back to 1990 when, as a young FAO Forestry Operations Officer, I was tasked with running a support programme at the then African Timber Organization based in Libreville, Gabon. My assignment in this sub-region having come full circle, I can now look back at FAO Forestry’s achievements in the Congo Basin over the last two decades and draw some preliminary conclusions with a view to the future.
Congo basin: the world’s second green lung
Covering some 300 million hectares1, the Congo Basin is the world’s second largest rainforest. It extends across the Democratic Republic of Congo, through most of the Republic of Congo, south-eastern Cameroon and the southern part of the Central African Republic on to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. It also covers to a lesser extent a part of Rwanda and Burundi.
Supporting institutions, starting with capacity
FAO’s support to forestry in the region has centred on enabling member countries to forge robust institutions that can sustainably manage their magnificent natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations. In the 1990s, FAO gave strong support to the idea of a regional institution to look after the interests of the Congo Basin, proposed under the Tropical Forestry Action Plan.
This need for strong national and regional institutions for the sustainable management of Congo Basin forests was recognized by FAO. The Organization therefore charted a new course with its initial support to the Conference on Ecosystems of Dense and Humid Forests of Central Africa, an umbrella organization of partners and civil society engaged in forest conservation that also encompassed international organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the then World Wildlife Fund. However, it soon became apparent that an official institution grouping the Basin member countries was needed. Following several consultations, the Central Africa Forests Commission (Commission des Forets d'Afrique Centrale -COMIFAC) was created in 1999 by the Summit of Heads of State, becoming effective in February 2005, and to which FAO has consistently provided support. Today it is an established regional organization and a reliable FAO partner, fully recognized sub-regionally and globally by all key actors in the forestry sector.
The fundamentals: planning, policy and legal support
Historically, member countries had diverse management and national policies, which did not always prioritize sustainability. FAO supported the Convergence Plan as a way to harmonize member country policies on forest resources, with an emphasis on sustainability and community participation in resource management, and as a positive response to the UN General Assembly Resolution for support to countries involved in the Yaoundé process.
Further support was provided to harmonize member country forestry policies and codes as well as to lend capacity for the formulation of national policies. The process is ongoing in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, and FAO’s leadership is highly recognized.
COMIFAC countries are also being supported by FAO in the design of national monitoring systems, which will provide them with essential data on national forests resources and be the basis for more robust forestry planning and policy making. For countries wishing to participate in REDD+, the systems will cover all requirements in monitoring and measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) in line with international agreements as well as those established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Food security and the contribution of forests
Although the contribution of forests to food security has long been underestimated, FAO activities in the sub-region have demonstrated the importance of non-timber forest products to the food security of forest-dwelling communities and in providing social benefits for many families living in them.
FAO-funded programmes promote non-timber forest products and have enabled member countries to harness knowledge on both their potential and constraints. This support has extended to capacity building, through the creation of small enterprises for the utilization and trade of non-timber forest products. Some of the FAO experiences shared at the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in May 2013 were derived from this region. This includes the essential role of forest insects in providing nutrition to local people.
Looking to the future ...
The increasing consumption of insects is just one area with great scaling-up potential in the region. With additional FAO support, indigenous knowledge and enterprise could be further developed to ensure that local initiatives bring direct benefits to forest dwellers. The rapid depletion of forest wildlife is another area of concern that has prompted FAO and partners to implement a programme for the sustainable management of wildlife and the regulation of bushmeat hunting.
COMIFAC has come of age and can provide advice to its member countries, negotiate on their behalf and attract significant resources and investments to the sector. Although not alone in bringing about these changes, FAO’s contributions are noteworthy and appreciated by both governments and local communities, and it will continue its commitment to the region.
... and identifying challenges
However, future activities call for a shift in emphasis: FAO needs to refocus its support in all aspects of forestry and climate change adaptation and mitigation, particularly in the challenging on-going climate negotiations. Successful sustainable forest management in the region is attainable, but it must begin with capacity building. This is crucial if we wish to empower the community of forest dwellers and those in the vicinity of the forests and assure their right to derive a decent life from the revenues accrued from the forests. If these communities remain central to our development objectives and to our engagement in the region, FAO will be able to rise to future challenges honourably.
Read more on the REDD+ monitoring and surveillance systems (in French).
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