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$1.5 billion Congo Basin pledge a good start but not enough, experts say

  • At last month’s COP26 climate summit, a group of 12 international donors pledged at least $1.5 billion over the next four years to support protection and sustainable management of the Congo Basin forests.
  • The pledge is part of a broader $12 billion commitment to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation worldwide by 2030.
  • The 200 million hectares (500 million acres) of forests in the Congo Basin may be the last significant land-based tropical carbon sink in the world, making the forests vitally important in the global fight against climate change.
  • So far, detail of the pledge remain limited, and reaction from regional experts has been mixed; but all agree that $1.5 billion is far from enough to resolve the region’s issues.

On Nov. 2, a group of 12 donors, including the European Commission, United Kingdom, United States and the Bezos Earth Fund, collectively pledged at least $1.5 billion in financing toward protection and sustainable management of the Congo Basin forests over the next four years. The pledge is part of a broader $12 billion commitment agreed at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, by 100 leaders to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, and has received a mixed response from regional experts.

The news of the declaration is “very, very positive,” said Patrick Saidi, national coordinator of Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA), a network based in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), of organizations working to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Saidi said DGPA has been fighting for years for recognition of the conservation practices of Indigenous and forest-dependent peoples, and for measures to be put in place to support these practices.

“It is a significant effort,” said Alain Karsenty, an economist and senior researcher at CIRAD, the French government’s agricultural research center for international development. “Given the enormous needs, it is certainly not enough.”

The pledge comes at a critical time. According to recent research, the degradation of tropical forests in Amazonia and Southeast Asia may soon make them net emitters of carbon, leaving the Congo Basin as possibly the last significant land-based tropical carbon sink. At the same time, the governments of the six Congo Basin countries — Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon — are looking to develop their economies through infrastructure projects and resource extraction, all of which risk exacerbating deforestation if not managed correctly.

The Congo river. According to recent research, the degradation of tropical forests in Amazonia and Southeast Asia may soon make them net emitters of carbon, leaving the Congo Basin as possibly the last significant land-based tropical carbon sink. Image by Ahtziri Gonzalez/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“What we should understand is that there is no other way out of the climate and biodiversity crisis … without the Congo Basin forests,” said Armstrong Mba, sustainable business adviser for the Zoological Society of London’s Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit program and based in Cameroon.

The joint donor statement says they recognize the value of the Congo Basin forests, welcome leadership from Central African countries on forest management, and acknowledge that sustainable management and restoration will require significant funding. At this stage the finer details of the pledge are not known, leaving commentators to assess its potential impact based on the current situation and past performance.

While both Mba and Karsenty said they welcome the pledge, they made clear that it’s nowhere near enough, given the importance of the Congo Basin in the fight against climate change.

“Though a great step, the $1.5 billion remains insignificant compared to what these same pledgers pay as subsidies to the fossil fuel industry each year,” Mba said. “Have we really grasped the danger we all face as a species?”

Small-scale agriculture is the most significant driver of deforestation in the region, and an issue that Karesenty said can only be resolved with an evolution in agricultural systems. Instituting new farming practices, particularly in rural areas with endemic poverty, is no easy task and will take time for Congo Basin governments to achieve.

Saidi said it’s crucial that communities living in forested areas are at the center of any plans and policies. They must be “beneficiaries of these funds, but also — and this is the most important element — actors of these funds,” he said.

Improvements in forest governance, land tenure rights and access to clean alternative fuel sources to charcoal are also key issues that will need to be addressed, all of which will require significant will from Congo Basin governments. President Félix Tshisekedi of the DRC pledged to fight deforestation and protect Indigenous rights in his speech at COP26. However, Irene Wabiwa, international project leader for Greenpeace Africa’s Congo Basin forest campaign, questioned the intent of both the donors and the DRC government.

“[The pledge is] a complete joke,” she said. “Coming as it does just as most of these same donors have greenlighted DRC’s plan to lift its 2002 moratorium on new logging titles as early as a year from now.”

In June this year, the DRC government approved a new plan for its rainforest management, which controversially included the lifting of a 20-year moratorium on new logging concessions. In an interview with National Geographic, the country’s environment minister, Ève Bazaiba Masudi, said that while the government could now grant new logging concessions, that didn’t mean it would. With two-thirds of the Congo Basin forests lying within the DRC, the move has alarmed environmental groups such as Greenpeace Africa.

Rainforest in the Congo Basin. Image by Corinne Staley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

One of the key concerns of environmental groups is that, even if the political will exists, many of the Congo Basin countries struggle with weak and opaque institutions that are a relic of colonial rule.

“The lack of efficient public services and administrations, the limited skilled human resources, the widespread corruption and hidden agendas of some politicians will make disbursements and effective use of this money difficult,” Karsenty said.

There have already been two major initiatives in the region aimed at reducing deforestation. The first of these, the Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF), was planned to run from 2008-2018 but was cancelled in 2014 before all funds had been disbursed, after an assessment by the U.K. government raised questions over the fund’s governance. The CBFF was replaced by the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) in 2015, to which donor countries have so far committed $500 million to reduce deforestation and forest degradation. To date, less than half the committed amount has been disbursed, with significant challenges in agreeing on parameters for performance-based payments and in finding suitable initiatives with robust governance in place.

“We are tired of promises,” Saidi said. “This is not the first time that there have been promises like this, it is not the first time decisions like this have been made in these big climate meetings.”

With deforestation deeply interrelated with poverty, development, governance and politics, the Congo Basin countries require interrelated cross-sectoral solutions, the advocates say — something that may be currently beyond the grasp of some of the Congo Basin states even if additional funding does come through.

“The idea that a country could decide to stop deforestation in the same way that it could close down coal-fired power stations is an illusion,” Karsenty said. “Much deforestation, especially in these Congo Basin countries, is — at least for the time being — beyond the reach of governments.”

The challenge of reducing deforestation in the Congo Basin is significant, as are the local and global consequences if the Congo Basin countries are unable to do so. While the Congo Basin pledge can be seen as a step in the right direction, all commentators said it’s clear that this is a long road with no easy fixes, and that the Congo Basin countries will need willing international partners if they are to achieve equitable development without sacrificing their forests.

Citations:

Harris, N. L., Gibbs, D. A., Baccini, A., Birdsey, R. A., De Bruin, S., Farina, M., … Tyukavina, A. (2021). Global maps of twenty-first century forest carbon fluxes. Nature Climate Change11(3), 234-240. doi:10.1038/s41558-020-00976-6

Gatti, L. V., Basso, L. S., Miller, J. B., Gloor, M., Gatti Domingues, L., Cassol, H. L., … Neves, R. A. (2021). Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature595(7867), 388-393. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03629-6

Banner image: A western lowland silverback gorilla in Central African Republic. Image by Gregoire Dubois via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).