Protected Areas in the Congo Basin

Overview

The Congo Basin harbours an impressive and rich array of flora and fauna, ranging from individual species (elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, giraffes and gorillas) to endemic habitats (hot spots). Growing interest in environmental protection in general and ecosystems in particular has prompted several African States to establish protected areas within their territories. According to the IUCN’s updated definition (2008), a protected area is "a clearly defined geographic space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values". This simple and concise definition sets out the core objectives of protected areas: to protect and maintain biodiversity (taking into account its three dimensions: genetic, specific, and ecosystem-related), natural resources, landscapes and associated cultural values. Currently, approximately 22.6 million hectares of rainforests in Central Africa, equivalent to 14% of its surface area, have been granted protected area status.

Background

Africa has a long history of space conservation. Traditionally, several animal and plants species, and sporadically forest spaces, were protected out of respect for ancestral customs or for religious reasons. In most Central African countries, the first generations of protected areas - in the modern sense of the term - were established during the colonial era, in the early 20th century. The sites were established as part of resting strategies to deal with potential overexploitation of wildlife of timber logs. Over the decades and with growing international awareness of threats facing biological diversity, conservation has gained more consideration. Biological diversity conservation initiatives have multiplied and become widespread in African countries. Hence, in the last two decades, biodiversity conservation, hitherto the preserve of a relatively small group of environmentalists and scientists, has become an integral part of national policies and planning. At the international level, in response to the 1992 Rio Convention, most African countries have signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity and have developed national strategies to that effect. In the same vein, the emergence of COMIFAC (the Central African Forest Commission) and subsequently RAPAC (the Central African Protected Areas Network), has led to a flurry of initiatives to establish, restructure and improve protected areas in the Congo Basin.

Transboundary protected areas in the Congo basin

Protected area management in the Congo Basin is now built on a new paradigm: the landscape conservation approach. As such, based on guidelines set out in the Convergence Plan, five transboundary protected area complexes have been established since 2000, coordinated by COMIFAC:

  1. The Sangha Tri-National - Cameroon, CAR, Congo;
  2. The Dja-Odzala-Minkebe Tri-National (TRIDOM) - Cameroon, Gabon, Congo;
  3. The Mayumba Conkouati Bi-National (PTMC)- Congo, Gabon;
  4. The Lake Tele- Lake Tumba Bi-National (LTLT) - Congo, DRC;
  5. The Sena Oura- Bouba Ndjida Bi-National - Cameroon, Chad.

 

Protected areas : Face multifaceted challenges, at the ecological, economic levels, scientific and socio-cultural levels

Protected areas face multifaceted challenges, at the ecological, economic levels, scientific and socio-cultural levels.

  • At the Ecological Level

Protected Areas help maintain biological diversity and ecological life-support processes. They enable the dynamic evolution of wildlife species as part of the natural selection process, sheltering them from anthropogenic pressure and disruption. They provide key ecological benefits, such as oxygen production, soil creation and protection, absorption and reduction of pollutants, improved local and regional climatic conditions, aquifer conservation, regulation and purification of water bodies. In addition, protected areas provide scenic environments for the landscapes around us and protect environments from natural disasters, such as floods and landslides. Finally, protected areas preserve all the ecological potential of environments for vital future use.

  • At the Economic Level

Protected areas notably foster the diversification of local and regional economies, and help safeguard habitats, wildlife and plant species as renewable natural resources that are vital for several activities, such as hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. They are also a lifeline to the tourism industry. Another industry that owes its rapid growth to protected areas is ecotourism, which is the observation of the living world. The sector has seen unprecedented growth worldwide.

  • At the Scientific level

Protected areas serve as laboratories in the wild. They provide access to first-hand information on ecosystems and species; they yield insights into how these natural elements work and adapt to change. Protected areas therefore play a vital role as ecological reference sites and promote a broader view of conservation as they allow monitoring of changes and assessment of the environmental impacts of various management decisions on territories and resources located outside the latter. Protected areas serve as control zones for establishing new management procedures, for instance relating to forestry practices or the conservation and valuing of wildlife. Society therefore uses them as an insurance policy, given the difficulty in understanding and controlling all the effects of resource use on natural environments. The importance of this insurance policy is especially heightened in cases where a given territory is under increasing pressure from management and development activities.

  • At the socio-cultural level

Protected areas help promote education and awareness of conservation issues. In fact, the knowledge gleaned from protected areas provides opportunities to go back in time and find out how ecosystems are born, grow and change. This knowledge can be used not only for scientific ends but also for educational purposes, for example, in helping to better understand the relationships between humans and nature. Protected areas therefore create opportunities to get in touch with nature. They hold undeniable public appeal, stimulating interest in the conservation of species and their habitats. They also help to shape voluntary public support for conservation and sustainable development. Furthermore, protected areas convey social, cultural and spiritual values. They instil the ethic that believes all forms of life have the right to exist and evolve at their own pace. Protecting ecosystems and landscapes through the Protected Area Mechanism helps develop an environmental ethic within the community and bolsters a State’s sense of pride and cultural identity. These spaces provide perfect settings for outdoor recreation which increases physical and mental well-being. Finally, protected areas provide inspiration for artists, writers, poets, musicians and philosophers.

Protected areas under threat : Threats, challenges and prospects

Hunting, logging and forest destruction for commercial purposes pose a major threat to the preservation of several protected areas in the Congo Basin. This is mainly due to strong population growth the Congo Basin. Furthermore, political instability and conflicts wreak havoc in these areas when they are overrun by people fleeing war or in search of new farmlands. Additionally, the advent of mining, oil or agro-industrial exploration projects directly and indirectly exerts great pressure on Protected Areas in the Congo Basin.

Moreover, protected area management in the Congo Basin is plagued by several challenges including: lack of funds, shortage of qualified staff,  institutional weakness, the absence of political support, weak legal frameworks and inadequate law enforcement, poor communication with and involvement of local residents in management planning, lack of coordination between organizations involved in such management, lack of general land use plans  and insufficient delineation of areas to be protected.

Despite numerous national and international initiatives geared towards  biodiversity conservation and management of protected areas in the Congo Basin; major challenges remain, such as the need to enhance the quality of  protected area management, develop effective monitoring indicators and systems that can be used for adaptive management of protected areas;  establish new protected areas at strategic locations; reconcile the need to enable sustainable development with that of biodiversity conservation, ensure involvement and effective participation of local populations in decision-making on protected area management and secure regular funding sources for conservation.

Summary of protected areas by country

No.

COUNTRY

NUMBER

TOTAL AREA (Ha)

1

BURUNDI

16

143,263.

2

CAMEROON

30

3,825,024

3

GABON

18

3,459,542

4

EQUATORIAL GUINEA

13

591, 000

5

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

16

7,014, 500

6

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

51

26,415,737

7

REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

15

3,992,422

8

RWANDA

3

235, 400

9

SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE

2

29,500

10

CHAD

10

11,367,820