The importance of African Rain Forests to the world

Reading time 9 min.

Rain forests are critical carbon dioxide storage sites that are most useful in their natural state. Their removal from the Earth, as is being done today in several large forests, could lead to catastrophic consequence. John B. Flynn who is Based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and has since 2003 managed the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative that promotes sustainable resource management in the Congo Basin, discusses rain forests in Africa and elsewhere and possible solutions to an urgent problem.

Question: Have you seen progress toward achieving climate change mitigation goals in your time in the CARPE program?

The tropical forests play a big role in regulating global climate by recycling greenhouse gases. They breathe them in and let off oxygen during the daytime, and so they’re a very important source of carbon storage.

The Central African Regional Program for the Environment goes back to 1995 as a concept to help start the process of mitigating global climate change through maintaining a major sink for this carbon on Earth, as opposed to in the atmosphere. As biodiversity and climate change became bigger U.S interests, the U.S. government decided to ramp the program up in terms of funding and scope and effort, and move the management of it right into the region itself to create a program of conserving the tropical forest for all the wildlife and people that live in and depend on it.

I would say in terms of global climate change mitigation, we have been, so far, very successful. Fully one-fifth of all the sources of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, comes from the destruction of the tropical forests of the world. As these forests are cleared and burned, carbon dioxide goes immediately into the atmosphere. There’s a massive pool of carbon dioxide, or carbon per se, in these forests, in the trunks of the trees, in the roots.

We have discovered since we’ve started working there that the rate of the conversion of the forest in central Africa — which is a vast, vast area bigger than the continental United States — has been less than one-tenth a percent per year. So from that point of view, there’s been a big success. And in terms of conserving biodiversity, which is our corollary goal, in certain areas where we’ve put in protective measures, large mammals, for example, forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, various kinds of monkeys, and antelopes, they’re thriving.

You have to remember at the same time that this is one of the poorest regions of the world. And of the approximately 100 million people that live in this region, about 50 percent of them actually live inside the forest itself. These people depend directly on what they can extract from the forest to live. Whether it’s from hunting, fishing, small-scale agriculture, beekeeping, whatever it is that the forest provides — it provides clothing, food and shelter for a large population of very poor people.

Our objective is to help the people that live there conserve the forest for their own future as well as for the global planet’s health. This is a major challenge.

Q: How critical is the multilateral approach to these environmental issues, and how may governments, nongovernmental organizations, communities and various agencies work together to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

A: This is fundamental and critical to the ultimate success or failure of any effort of this scale, and since the forest is of such vital importance to the entire planet, everybody has a stake in it. Part of the reason that the so-called Congo Basin Forest Partnership was created with U.S. government leadership back in 2002 was to call the world’s attention to how important this Central Africa forest really is. There’s absolutely no one player, organization, government or donor that can do this alone. Our program is creating a structure for others to join, and we have seen an incredible outpouring of interest.

When I first started in 2003, there was a certain amount of skepticism — why does the U.S. government want to come to this remote area to do conservation? Many of the African governments were looking at us with a bit of suspicion thinking there must be some other motives. Maybe we wanted to explore for oil, maybe we wanted minerals, maybe we wanted other kinds of resources. Eventually, because of the way we’ve opened up the program to all comers that wanted to contribute, that suspicion has largely disappeared. And now with some concrete results that African governments, and local communities particularly, can see right in front of their eyes, this initiative is becoming more and more popular. Now, we’re seeing international research organizations getting involved. We’re seeing many other donor countries getting involved, especially as the awareness level is being raised in international and local communities.

In some of my visits to very remote places — which take days to even reach through various means of transportation, including dugout canoes, jeeps and walking — you find villagers in remote locations in the forest talking about global climate change. And they actually feel that they see changes happening in their forests, differing from their tradition. Whether it’s because the water levels are changing, places that they used to hunt are not the same, things are changing. There’s definitely awareness and a willingness by stakeholders of all kinds now to form partnerships. The key is how to create the right incentives so that people see the benefit from conservation.

For forest conservation to be ultimately successful, we have to find ways for the people who are de facto managing the forest, the local communities, to become financially rewarded for good stewardship of that forest. It’s not a simple matter, because we have to find ways for these local people that are basically not well educated to start participating in the global markets and to become involved in global issues. They understand that something’s going on, and they have a strong desire to protect the forest — their ancestral lands in many cases — and they have a strong tradition of managing the forest. But as you get more population pressures — the Central African region is growing at about 3 percent a year despite all the diseases and issues of war — there’s more pressure to clear forest for livelihoods. At the same time, we’re seeing governments searching for ways to increase their revenues for the state, for ways to find value in the forest for immediate development needs. And that has been most recently through logging. Logging can be sustainable at some level, done properly, although there is not a lot of knowledge on how to do that, but we are trying to help with that process. So our implementing partners, the conservation groups, are actually in many cases embracing the logging companies because through good logging practices, we can assure at least some level of sustainable forest management. It’s a bit of a paradox. But, in effect, the market rules. The timber can only enter into certain markets if it’s known and proven that it’s cut in a way that’s sensitive to the environment and beneficial to local communities because the logging is done right where people are living.

There are always issues of national sovereignty and other pressing questions for which we’re going to have to find, collectively, a solution. As much as we may not want to say it this way, the tropical forests are really a global property. They are so important to the future of our planet, their use cannot be decided upon by any one entity. There needs to be some kind of collaborative agreement, and this is why this framework discussion on climate change may be the ultimate way to handle that kind of issue. It’s sensitive, and I understand that. If they were talking about forests in the United States, we would also be very sensitive about that. We would not be taking kindly to somebody telling us we can’t cut some trees down to build houses. The same way, Africans are not happy to hear somebody from outside say you shouldn’t be cutting any trees. We need to find a framework that everybody can agree on, at least the principles, and then, I think, our role and the role of the international community is to help these developing countries build their own capacity, and create the financial structure and incentives that it makes it in their interest, short- and long-term, to become a part of that framework.

Q: Is there an eco-system services-type framework that values the carbon sequestration function of the forest that also benefits the local people, so they stop clearing rain forests?

A: We have some ideas. We have about 70 various community forest areas that total about 25 million hectares — it’s huge — where we have been working to develop the capacity to manage, and they are looking forward to the day when they can make additional revenues from those forests rather than just their daily survival.

Right now, we can see three or four principal environmental services that have the possibility to generate revenue. The one we have been working on probably the longest is ecotourism. It’s a nonconsumptive service done properly; in other words, it does not damage the resource. But I have to make a caveat: It can do damage if it’s not done properly. Tourism is a difficult area to develop, especially in fragile eco-systems. The tropical forest looks robust, but it’s quite fragile. The wildlife that lives in the tropical forest is not as plentiful as on the savannah because tropical forests are deceptively nonproductive. You look at the lush growth all around you and think this must be a massively productive area. But in reality, it’s at its highest and best use as a forest, ecologically speaking. Agriculture and other kinds of uses are not very favorable. The soils are not very good. There are a lot of pests. So tourism done properly can provide some revenue for local people and generate some revenue to manage and protect the particularly sensitive areas that we have identified.

The other environmental service on the horizon has to do directly with global climate change. It’s conceivable that the vast rain forest carbon reserve could be sold in some kind of carbon trading scheme, whether it’s cap-and-trade, offset — there are many different programs that are being discussed. But the payment for those services, especially if funding reaches the local communities that are actually stewards of the forest, would be a powerful incentive for forest conservation.

The other environmental service that has great potential in the Congo Basin and tropical forest zones is fresh water.

In my view, without including a scheme for tropical forest incentives, we will lose our forests. It’s just a matter of time, and with catastrophic effects. Just imagine if that carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. It would be an accelerator for global warming. Creating a system and building incentives for collaborative work toward common objectives is good not only for the planet, but it is good to prevent, mitigate and manage conflict and promote good governance.

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