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Forests and climate change in Central Africa — what will 2014 bring?

Demand for resources sees major projects changing Central Africa’s landscapes
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Africa - At a glance :

  • Central Africa will be at the heart of this year’s global discussions on links between agriculture and forests
  • It’s been a decade since Cameroon legislated on the formal zoning of forested areas. This year there is a push towards a more national approach to overcome sectoral claims to land use.
  • China-Africa cooperation will develop through a forest governance-learning platform facilitated by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
  • Plans to upgrade Yaoundé laboratory will enable scientists to measure non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

With the deadline for a global climate agreement looming next year, scientists, conservationists and policymakers in Central Africa are becoming increasingly aware that management of forests needs to be part of a broader conversation about land use.

This year looks set to bring in more of the surrounding sectors, issues and stakeholders. As demand for resources sees major projects changing Central Africa’s landscapes, an integrated approach appears to be needed to manage the competition.

Plantations, farmers and forests on African agenda

Although no progress was made on agriculture at last year’s UN climate conference in Warsaw, the links between farm development and forest management are now firmly established as a global discussion topic – and Central Africa is at the heart of the discussion.

Agriculture is one of many human activities putting pressure on Central African land: mineral extraction, infrastructure development and urban sprawl compete with trees for space in a context of demographic and economic growth.

“[Agriculture] will occupy a growing space for us who work on issues such as REDD+ and have already been studying it as a driver of deforestation,” said Denis Sonwa, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Cameroon.

Conservation groups share this view – especially as major plantation projects are moving to Africa.

“Palm oil development is shifting from Indonesia towards Central and West Africa, and Latin America,” said Greenpeace’s African forests campaigner Frédéric Amiel.

His organization has listed African projects totaling 2.6 million hectares that were either earmarked or already home to large-scale oil palm plantation projects, and he added that interest in rubber was also growing.

A similar tally by the Rainforest Foundation UK has found announcements for 15 plantation projects in the previous four years totaling 1.6 million hectares in the Congo Basin alone, half a million hectares of which already have signed planting authorizations.

Amiel said conservationists were concerned about the overlaps between planned plantations and forests.

“Industrial companies should adopt conservation practices to ensure they do not cut natural forests, and governments should make those mega-concessions conditional on the absence of deforestation,” he said, citing examples of successful zero-deforestation palm oil plantations such as those of Golden Agri Resources in Indonesia.

He added that international timber markets, which have begun to address unsustainable logging through legislation banning the import of illegal wood in consumer countries, should now prepare to address the high volumes of timber expected from the clearance of new plantations.

Zoning to address competing land uses 

“African forests appear to plantation developers as an area to be conquered, but it’s too easy to blame everything on them,” said Paul Scholte, who coordinates the German cooperation agency GIZ’s program for sustainable forest management in the Congo Basin.

“Much can be done to clarify land use,” he added, advocating government policies that “get out of the sectoral approach to forests and towards a more national approach” to manage the allocation of space and resources between different human activities.

This year marks a decade since Cameroon legislated on the formal zoning of areas designated to remain in the “permanent forest estate” (PFE) and organized procedures to allocate other forests to economic and social activities.

Such land use planning has made it possible to track forest evolution and use, with information regularly made public through a partnership between the national authorities and the World Resources Institute.

According to the latest version of the Interactive Forest Atlas of Cameroon, “between 2006 and 2011, the PFE increased by 3% to 16.3 million ha, representing 35% of the total national land area, surpassing the 30% target stipulated by the 1994 Forestry Law”.

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Peter Fitzgerald

Although the scope of the law is limited to forest areas and implementation difficulties have arisen, Scholte said other African countries could draw inspiration from the Cameroonian example.

“The next big issue is to take the forest sector out of its current defensive position, where it is feeling attacked, marginalized and seen as the last piece of land to be claimed,” he said.

Positive signs include increasing engagement on forest management at the highest political level – Scholte cited last December’s presidential summit on elephant poaching in Botswana – but the competition for land and forest resources has become so conflict-ridden that the task is daunting.

“The old approach was: ‘Let’s create a national park and all other sectors will respect that’,” Scholte said.

“Increased pressure means it is no longer automatic, and we see mining concessions inside protected areas. It shows that we have not done enough to address those competing claims. We first need to recognize this, then think outside sectoral claims, much of which depends on strong governments and relies on improved governance.”

Landscape approach to bridge knowledge and policy gaps

Scientists, conservationists and policy experts agree that a more integrated approach between land use sectors is emerging and will be increasingly needed to address such competition.

Both CIFOR’s Sonwa and Greenpeace’s Amiel mentioned the landscape approach as a solution to take all sectors of human activity into account when looking at forest management.

CIFOR scientist Anne-Marie Tiani has been studying the interactions between climate change adaptation and mitigation in the Congo Basin, and she predicts that efforts to break barriers between research fields will intensify this year.

“We must go further and explore other synergies between development sectors related to forests and between development and climate policies, with the landscape as our spatial area of study,” she said.

Her recent research in Cameroon highlights the need for greater integration between the country’s current economic growth strategy, which would result in the loss of more than 7% of its forests, and the commitment to maintain 30% of the national territory under permanent forests.
Law enforcement and governance: China coming on board

Much of the recent focus on the international timber trade has targeted exports of illegally sourced products to consumer countries. European and American legislation is now in place to ban illegally produced wood products and governments are beginning to enforce them.

The German authorities seized a shipment of wenge logs from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first suspected violation of the new European timber regulation last November. Amiel said Greenpeace would continue to support its enforcement this year by exposing potential new cases.

Further engagement is expected in 2014 from another key export destination – China. Strong demand and a 1998 logging ban to stop domestic deforestation has turned Chinese traders into the main timber buyers in several African countries – up to 90% of the output in Mozambique.

Although Beijing issued guidelines for sustainable overseas investment by Chinese firms in the past, recent research shows that they often ignore the advice and bypass legal forest management requirements in Africa.

This could change this year as further China-Africa cooperation develops through a forest governance learning platform facilitated by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

“Chinese government authorities are preparing a third set of guidelines for Chinese companies that will focus on foreign investment in forest industries, a move that acknowledges the need to provide Chinese companies with more direction,” wrote IIED’s head of natural resources group James Mayers.

“In another political and cultural context, where businesses are more independent, the voluntary nature of the guidelines might discredit them. Given the links of Chinese businesses to government, however, the guidelines are considered to be extremely helpful.”
Mangroves and non-carbon greenhouse gases

Nitrous oxide and methane are often considered the forgotten gases in the forests and climate change debate. And scientists hope to see measurements of these gases move into Central Africa this year.

“CIFOR has already conducted studies on this issue in Asia, is now starting in Peru, and we hope to initiate similar research in Central Africa,” said Sonwa.

Plans to upgrade the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture’s laboratory in Yaoundé will give Africa greater capacity to measure non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

Sonwa also hopes for greater interest in the climate change mitigation potential of African mangroves as CIFOR’s Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP) extends into the continent in 2014.

“To ignore mangroves would be to ignore a great carbon store, but they have yet to appear on the agenda of the  (COMIFAC),” he said.

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