Okapi by Clare Shenstone
Incredible biological and cultural diversity: The Congo Basin is home to Earth’s second-largest contiguous tract of rainforest (after the Amazon) and Africa’s second-longest river, not to mention some of the world’s most-loved species including elephants, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and okapi. It spans 3.7 million km2 across the DRC and parts of the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea.
Map of Africa showing the Congo Basin.
It is one of only five landscapes defined as High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas worldwide and is home to the largest assemblage of tropical forest vertebrates, including over 450 known mammal species, 1,300 bird species, 336 amphibian species and 400 reptile species; as well as over 20,000 plant species (70 per cent of those found in Africa), 8,000 of which are endemic to the region. It also holds a relatively large percentage of the world’s forest-based carbon (DRC alone holds eight per cent); and generates 75 to 95 per cent of the region’s rainfall. The Congo Basin also directly supports the livelihoods of 40 million people, including an estimated 500,000-920,000 indigenous forest peoples whose lives and cultures are often deeply entwined with the ecosystems around them.
Imminent threats: Poor governance of natural resource wealth in the region (and high levels of associated corruption and conflict) means that it is home to some of the most economically poor and politically unstable countries in the world. As governments in the Congo Basin set ambitious development targets to reach ’emerging economy’ status, international companies, development banks and nation-states seek out investment opportunities in these resource-rich countries. Whilst evidence suggests a correlation between secure land tenure and forest conservation, policies and programmes to protect forests peoples’ rights are patchy across the region. Indigenous peoples and local communities officially own less than one per cent of land in any given Congo Basin country. This lack of tenure makes it possible for companies (and governments) to claim that land is ‘available’ for development and makes large swathes of intact forests and wetlands – and their inhabitants – vulnerable to destructive activity.
Around 500,000 km2 (an area about the size of Spain) has been allocated to logging concessions – 30 per cent of this in the DRC and much more logging occurs illegally. However, agribusiness (especially palm oil, but also rice for export to China for example), hydropower, mining and accompanying infrastructure also present massive and imminent threats. Over 60,000 km2 of land has been requested for agro-industrial and forestry projects in recent years in Cameroon, DRC, Congo, CAR and Gabon, with individual requests reaching up to 100,000 km2. Proposed palm oil projects for the Congo Basin cover around 16,000 km2 (with around two thirds of the region – 1.6 million km2 – having suitable conditions for growing palm oil).
As extractive companies move into new areas, local taboos and social norms, such as those on bushmeat hunting, can be degraded and existing hunting pressures (and demand for other forest products) exacerbated which, while less intense than in Southeast Asia, already present serious threats to forest species, such as apes. Trade is also likely to become a greater threat as species populations are diminished in Asia (e.g. for pangolins) and suppliers look to Africa to meet demand. A recent BBC investigation exposed highly organised trafficking of baby chimpanzees from West African and Congo Basin forests to parts of Asia; an issue which has received relatively little attention compared to efforts to tackle poaching for ivory in other parts of Africa.
Lack of philanthropic funding to tackle imminent threats: Our research suggests that philanthropic funding for mainland African forests tends to be lower than that directed towards the protection of forests in Latin America and Southeast Asia and has traditionally focused on addressing threats to forests from local-level activities, such as subsistence agriculture and firewood collection rather than industrial-scale activities.
Strong civil society and effective collaboration: Civil society groups in the region, with their extensive knowledge, experience and networks, are arguably best placed to address many of these threats. Whilst there are barriers to effective operation (e.g. lack of capacity and funding) we have found many organisations doing great work to protect important places, animals and people. Specifically – despite such potential for disconnection given the political context and physical isolation of many forest regions – we have seen many groups embracing collaboration in their work.
Perhaps surprising given its history, collaboration seems particularly strong in Eastern DRC. A mixture of formal processes and strong leadership has led to strong coordination of NGO and government activities around Virunga National Park – Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park – since 2008. This was particularly important in 2014 when SE partner Reseau CREF (a network of around 30 local civil society groups) worked with Virunga National Park staff, international NGOs and filmmakers to successfully (for now) halt plans to drill for oil in the park.
In 2016 SE partners IUCN and ZSL worked together with the Congolese Parks service and other NGOs to produce a ten-year strategy to protect the elusive okapi which resides in the forests of north-eastern DRC. The strategy outlines different actions – ranging from protecting key sites from militia and extractive industry through to supporting sustainable local livelihoods and designates responsibility for their implementation to different stakeholders.
Our research shows us that strong leadership; effective collaboration and core support for local groups are key ingredients of any strategy for protecting habitats and species in the Congo Basin. Collaboratively, diverse groups can play a much stronger role – not only in tackling imminent threats – but in addressing broader more systemic drivers of biodiversity loss in the region such as corruption, conflict and land tenure insecurity.
(1) SE partners working in the Congo Basin:
1. Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones (DGPA) https://www.synchronicityearth.org/projects/forests/Dynamique-des-Groupes-des-Peuples-Autochtones
2. Mbou Mon Tour https://www.mboumontour.com/
3. International Rivers https://www.synchronicityearth.org/projects/freshwater/international-rivers
4. Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) https://www.synchronicityearth.org/projects/forests/rainforest-foundation-uk
5. Le Réseau pour la Conservation et la Réhabilitation des Ecosystèmes Forestiers (Réseau CREF) https://www.synchronicityearth.org/projects/forests/reseau-cref
6. Well Grounded https://well-grounded.org/
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