Central Africa fails to seal finance deal to save threatened forests
BRAZZAVILLE (AFP) Jun 27, 2004
Central African countries and international donors failed at the weekend to agree how to finance an ambitious plan to manage the region's natural parks and forests, especially the Congo Basin forest, considered the world's second-most important green lung after the Amazon.

The meetings Friday and Saturday to hammer out a strategy for sustainable environmental management ended without any decision on a mechanism to fund what is estimated as a 1.5-billion-dollar (1.2-billion-euro) plan over the next 10 years.

The Congo Basin nations -- Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon -- have pledged to foot 40 percent of the bill but want the rest of the financing to come from partnerships with Western nations, non-governmental groups and industries interested in forest resources.

"We're speaking of partnership. A partnership works with diversity. There are diverse means of action and various forms of financing. Everyone will do what they can and what they know how to do," France's delegate, Denys Gauer, said on Saturday.

The attempt to develop a collective mechanism to protect the region's endangered forests has been two years in the making.

In 2002 the Congo Basin countries launched the Conference of Ministers in Charge of Central African Forests (COMIFAC) as the central policy-making body for the conservation and sustainable management of forests in Central Africa.

At a COMIFAC meeting in Paris in January 2003, donors pledged 300 million dollars (247 million euros) to back the regional strategy, which would include replanting forests and preserving endangered woodland and marine animal species in the Congo Basin.

Another major ambition was the so-called "convergence plan" announced last August, to create a network of natural parks and protected areas covering 100,000 square kilometers (37,000 square miles) and managed forests covering about 200,000 square kilometers in total -- about three quarters the size of Japan.

But according to a report from regional experts, only the United States has contributed to the funding package agreed in Paris -- 20 of the 53 million dollars promised. And none of the pledged money has actually been released because the regional plan still has not been finalized.

The Congo Basin represents 18 percent of the world's tropical rainforest and 70 percent of the African continent's plant cover.

It is the earth's second largest forest after the Amazon, pumping oxygen into the atmosphere and home to as-yet unknown species with potential benefits to mankind.

More than 600 species of tree and 10,000 animal species grow and live in its forests.

But Africa is estimated to have lost at least 10 percent of its forested area since the 1980s.

The Congo Basin Forest Partnership was itself launched at a United Nations conference in Johannesburg in 2002. That conference heard evidence that the region's forests were disappearing due to population growth, over-grazing, illegal logging, mining activities, civil wars and environmental destruction.

The partnership countries, struggling under heavy debt burdens or just emerging from crippling war, have severe difficulty in managing their environmental resources.

No new funding was announced at the weekend meeting in Brazzaville. And no one way of delivering funds to the COMIFAC effort was approved by donors, which included delegates from the United States, France, Italy and Germany, as well as the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the African Development Bank and public and private groups.

The partnership is also backed by the European Union, Britain, Canada and South Africa.

"There is no one mechanism for financing (the plan)," said the Republic of Congo's forestry minister, Henri Djombo, who is the current COMIFAC head. "We have identified several financing mechanisms."

Those mechanisms, according to sources in Brazzaville, include the creation of a common fund for the Congo Basin environment, the conversion of African nations' debtload into credits for conservation projects, and special taxes to be levied locally for conservation projects.