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Saving the forests of the Congo Basin: Q&A with author Meindert Brouwer

  • Central African Forests Forever, first published in 2017, takes readers to the heart of the continent, introducing them to the people and wildlife of this region.
  • Its author, independent communications consultant Meindert Brouwer, says the book also functions as a tool for sharing information about efforts to address poverty and environmental issues in the region.
  • Mongabay spoke with Brouwer to learn more about his motivations and the reception of his work in Central Africa.

It was an ambitious project from the start: to capture the Congo Basin rainforest in the pages of a book. Stretching across an area larger than Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest rainforest straddles six countries in Central Africa. Many are crippled by corruption, civil conflict, and seemingly solution-less problems at the intersection of poverty and environmental stewardship. The loss of the Congo Basin’s forests has lurched along more slowly than in the Amazon rainforest or the jungles of Southeast Asia, but many experts worry that that trend won’t hold. The region’s growing population and the need for economic development have already led to the rising destruction of unique ecosystems to make way for farms, mines and timber plantations.

Nki Falls, Nki National Park, Cameroon. Image © Jaap van der Waarde/WWF.

Perhaps such a book could introduce the world to this little-known part of Africa, highlighting why it needs protection and what’s working there to improve the lives of its inhabitants, thought Meindert Brouwer. The independent communications consultant with a quarter century of experience in conservation, much of it in Central Africa, knew it would be a challenge from the start. The paradox was that because the Congo Basin is less familiar to many people than the Amazon, it would be harder to rally the support necessary to launch the project.

Indeed, Brouwer said, finding an initial funder took time. But since then, the book’s momentum has led the project in new directions. Brouwer quickly saw that the value of the book, Central African Forests Forever, first planned only for digital publication, lay not just in its distribution beyond Central Africa, but within the region as well. It’s become a tool, Brouwer said, that facilitates the exchange of ideas across the heart of the continent, so much so that few copies remain of the edition in French, the lingua franca in most Congo Basin countries.

Mongabay spoke with Brouwer recently from his office in the Netherlands.

The village of Siniya in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image © Joachim-Maurice Maya Kumabo/Tropenbos International.

Mongabay: Why did you decide to write and put together this book in the first place?

Meindert Brouwer: I was at an international climate conference, showing my [previous] book about non-timber forest products from the Amazon rainforest many years ago. This woman from Africa said, “Write a book about the Congo Basin rainforest.” And so, I said, “I will.” That’s personal — I promised her to do this. But the main reason to write his book is to raise awareness about the very existence of the Congo Basin rainforest. When you’re in the street and you mention the word “rainforest” in Europe and the United States, everybody thinks of the Amazon. Hardly anyone knows about the Congo Basin rainforest. This book is meant to make the Congo Basin rainforest better known.

What questions are you trying to address in the book?

In my book, I start with a helicopter view by [former director of the International Tropical Timber Organization] Emmanuel Ze Meka, [with the questions], what’s going on in Central Africa? What’s at stake with regard to the rainforests? Then, I show the great biodiversity and the ecosystem services, which are key for the well-being of the people living there and for the world. I present issues and especially the solutions and opportunities for conservation and sustainable use of the Congo Basin rainforest, hand-in-hand with sustainable economic developments.

For this reason, I also published a French version for the people in Central Africa so they can benefit from the best practices in the book. Let’s [take] charcoal. People go in the forest [and cut] trees for charcoal. That’s a big threat. There is a project in [the Democratic Republic of Congo] about charcoal, [in which] fast-growing trees [are grown] next to the farm, so people don’t need to go into the forest. They have enough charcoal, even more than they need themselves. Then, they can start selling charcoal and get away from poverty. When someone in Cameroon or Gabon reads about this example, [communities there] can do the same. When there’s something good in Cameroon and someone in [the Republic of Congo] reads about this, they can replicate it. That’s why there is a French version. What I have to stress is that this is not a book by a white man about Africa. I went to people from Central Africa, and I asked them, “What do you think needs to be done?” This is a book by Africans for Africans and for the world.

An organic farmer in Cameroon. Image © Both ENDS and CENDEP.

It does seem to be a guide for different approaches when it comes to looking at the forest and how we live in and around it.

Yes, from many angles. There’s also a chapter about women’s rights and how to achieve women’s empowerment. Why? Because women know more about agriculture than men. They know more about the forest because they go into the forest, they look for vegetables, for mushrooms and for other food. They know their way around the forest, but their knowledge is not used in the communities. Of course, this is not good for the women themselves. This is not good for the community, and it’s not good for the forest. So I put women’s rights in the book because their empowerment is important for the forest.

Langoué Bai in Ivindo National Park, Gabon. Image © David Greyo, courtesy of WCS and ANPN.

Was it difficult to find funding, and might that be related to the lack of awareness that we have of the Congo Basin? For a lot of us, it’s still kind of this blank spot on the map in a lot of ways.

At first, I approached the African Development Bank, and that door stayed closed. At some point, I came across COMIFAC (the Central African Forest Commission), a high-level organization of 10 countries in Central Africa focused on keeping the rainforest standing. And there is the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, [which is affiliated with COMIFAC]. In 2015 I went to the [organization’s] annual meeting in Cameroon to establish contacts both for content and funding. To make a long story short, the main funding comes from KfW (the German development bank), advised by the Central African Forest Commission to do so. It was the Africans who thought it was a good idea to produce a book like this.

Sacks of charcoal in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image © Isilda Nhantumbo.

How did you select the people who either wrote chapters or played prominent roles as interview subjects in the book?

I’ve traveled to Africa [for my work], and on the way I met people. I’ve been in communication of conservation for 25 years now. I have a lot of contacts also from previous books, so key experts advised me about whom to approach.

You mentioned this being a personal project for you. I would imagine that having spent time in Central Africa, the place has affected you. Why is the Congo Basin important to you?

First of all, it’s the people. I like getting to know the people of Central Africa very much. It’s not always easy to live in Central Africa. There’s a lot of poverty. There are a lot of problems, but many people still have a smile. I have this spot for them in my heart.

There’s [also] this great rainforest with the great apes, and I love biodiversity. I get very sad and angry [to see] that biodiversity is diminishing, reduced by the way we organize our economy. I think the Congo Basin rainforest is a great treasure, and I want to help in ways I’m good at, [like] writing stories. That’s my way of getting attention and passing on good ideas to policymakers, to politicians, to NGOs, to banks, [and] to financial institutions.

Also, I hope you agree that the reading is easy. Everybody who is 16 and speaks English should be able to understand what’s in the book. Why? Because many politicians and policymakers do not have specific knowledge of the rainforest, so I have to make it easy for them. When you have a look at the table of contents, which is two pages, you already know what’s going.

The book went to European countries, but it was also passed on by others to forest institutions and companies in China, which is very important. A lot of timber [from Central Africa] often illegally goes through to China. Some institutions from China want to go in a sustainable direction, and they should. [It’s] in their own interest because if you keep emptying the forest, there will not be any timber in the future. Others brought the book to the United States Senate, and the book was on the table [during] international negotiations about financing conservation in the world, including forest conservation in the Congo Basin. The book has proven to be a good communication tool for the Congo Basin rainforest.

Slash-and-burn agriculture in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by Meindert Brouwer.

Why is it important to focus not just on the conservation of biodiversity, but the issues around sustainable use, for instance, Forest Stewardship Council certification and REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation)?

Poverty needs to be addressed. Community development, economic development and improvement of income are key for forest conservation. If people have jobs and a decent income, they do not need to go into the forest for their livelihood. The book is about opportunities and solutions from many angles — economically, socially and ecologically. [In one example in the book], I wrote a story about community tourism, not about the high-end lodges where only the very rich go. When tourists come, people who have no jobs start getting an income because they look after transportation, they have a lodge, they cook for the tourists and the guides take them to the forest. My guide in Gabon used to be a hunter for commercial bushmeat, and he had no alternative. But now he has stopped hunting for commercial bushmeat because he’s paid by the tourists.

[Similarly], if the people in the forest get a better yield and income from agriculture by being instructed about better techniques, if they can leave behind slash-and-burn agriculture, it’s in their benefit, and it’s also good for the forest.

The chapter on palm oil production seems very much in that same vein. You’re talking about the need to build a foundation with the smallholders.

People need palm oil, but you should produce it in a sensible and sustainable way. That’s why I approached this expert, [World Agroforestry Centre scientist] Peter Minang, who explains how you can do it in a sustainable way. It’s all about sustainability and balance. I stressed the necessity of sustainable agriculture because people need to eat. There is not enough food in the forest for so many people, and the population is growing, so there will be [parts] of the forest cut down for agriculture. It’s a main driver [of deforestation] together with the charcoal. If you have sustainable agriculture and you improve your yields, less forest needs to be cut.

Nkundu girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image © Jonas Eriksson Abana.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The Congo Basin rainforest is very important for the well-being of the people in the region, for Africa as a whole and for the well-being of the world. Many tens of millions of people depend on it directly for their livelihood. It stores huge amounts of carbon dioxide and helps to reduce global warming. It is a rainmaker, indispensable for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. It is an immense source of fresh water in a world where fresh water gets more scarce every year. Its rivers can generate hydropower for the whole continent of Africa. There are many medicinal plant species, 20 of which are used in the treatment of cancer.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity. All of the photos in this article appear in Central African Forests Forever by Meindert Brouwer.

Banner image of Langoué Bai in Ivindo National Park, Gabon. Image © David Greyo/courtesy of WCS and ANPN. 

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