Nearly 20 years ago, when I was working as a PhD student with the Tropenbos Cameroon Program, we hosted a team of researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research studying sustainable forest management in Africa. The team needed to test its criteria and indicators in an area with a forest management plan. The only problem: the country’s forestry law had only recently been adopted, and so no forest management plan had been set up yet.
Management of the forests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa, my home, has come a long way in the past 20 years. Before 1992, there was only one Ministry of Forestry in Gabon; in other countries forestry issues were tucked away inside the various ministries of agriculture. There was little discussion of the role of forests in mitigating climate change and no mention of it in the laws of Central African countries.
Laws and policies did not provide for the role of communities or women in forest management and access. Forest concession management plans, the first step in sustainable forest management, were almost unheard of and rarely in use. The importance of forests in ensuring food security and nutrition for tens of millions of people was taken for granted. China had not yet arrived in Africa. Biofuels were still in research labs and there were few oil palm plantations. The idea that forests transcended national borders and should be managed collectively remained a long way off.
But vast changes swept across the region shortly after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – or Rio Summit. Ministries governing forests alone were introduced in country after country, along with supporting institutions. Officers went to work drafting new and extensive legal frameworks for forests.
Forest management needs to evolve from a colonial model that was ‘exported’ to the tropics in the 1950’s, existing forest management plans need to be implemented, and law enforcement and governance need to be bolstered.
The Forest Stewardship Council was born in 1993 and the first certified forests appeared in Africa in 2005. The European Union launched the FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan in 2003. The nearly 50 percent increase in population across the region put a spotlight on the critical link between forests and food security and nutrition. The progress of forest-based climate mitigation schemes at the UN Climate Change conferences has seen an increased understanding amongst African policymakers of the importance of the Congo Basin forests.
While not an exhaustive list, it’s clear the sustainable forest management in Central Africa seems to have made some progress. But there are still some questions in the air – and a conference held by the Center for International Forestry Research next week will aim to provide insight for researchers and development institutions alike: What has really been done? What has been the impact of these changes? Where are we today? And what are the challenges ahead? What are the priorities for researchers, policy-makers and practitioners?
Annual deforestation rates have been comparatively low over the past 20 years, however there are strong indications that Central African forests are at a critical turning point.
If current rates of demographic growth remain constant, the population of the Congo Basin will double in the next 25 to 30 years. Forest roads associated with logging are slowly penetrating previously untouched forest areas, increasing accessibility and opening up forests to more indirect threats.
Central African countries are facing large-scale acquisition of land by foreign investors to develop agro-industries, and the mining sector. Vulnerability of forests and forest-dependent populations to climate change is a cause for concern at the local, national and international levels.
Legal frameworks put in place to promote the sustainable management of forests are inconsistent. Informal and illegal activities have continued to grow uncontrollably. Knowledge on available resources, their dynamics and their interactions still seem insufficient. Problems of governance and corruption persist.
We have come a long way in 20 years in Central Africa, but there is still much more to be done. Forest management needs to evolve from a colonial model that was ‘exported’ to the tropics in the 1950’s, existing forest management plans need to be implemented, and law enforcement and governance need to be bolstered. We need to see a dramatic increase in properly managed areas over the next 20 years, not a return to the business-as-usual exploitation of forests.
Richard is the Regional Coordinator of CIFOR’s Central Africa office. He can be contacted at email@example.com