YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon—Much attention (and millions of dollars) have been paid to determine how to mitigate and adapt to climate change in Central Africa’s Congo Basin.
Now, there is a research facility worthy of that investment, the first of its kind in the region that will enable scientists to conduct greenhouse gas research specific to Central Africa. The new laboratory follows on the heels of a newly opened lab in Kenya—another first.
Based in the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé, the new Central African facility owes its existence to some remarkable collaboration among a host of international research partners.
With financial support from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) established the laboratory, which is hosted by CIFOR’s sister CGIAR center and KIT partner, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)—all of whom cooperate closely and exchange expertise in soil analysis with Cameroon’s University of Dschang.
Until now, there has been no way to collect the data needed to make good decisions on the management of the forests
Researchers are now able to analyze soil and other samples locally, measuring greenhouse gas emissions from forests, degraded forests, and different agricultural landscapes, and assessing the environmental impacts of different land uses in the Congo Basin, home to the second-largest tropical forest area in the world.
This is something completely new in the region. While there have been some preliminary studies to assess how different land uses affect carbon stocks, none has looked at how soil management practices and the nature of land cover and use affect greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is groundbreaking research that would simply not have been possible without this new lab,” said CIFOR’s Denis Sonwa, who leads the project, a key component in CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.
The research team comprising CIFOR scientists, students and faculty from the University of Dschang and KIT, are now taking full advantage of the high-tech lab to study how conversion of forest to agriculture in the Congo Basin increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Given efforts to intensify agriculture and increase food production in the region, CIFOR and its partners deem it extremely important to explore ways to address the integrated issues of forest conversion, sustainable agricultural intensification and soil greenhouse gas emissions in the Congo Basin.
“Our work on greenhouse gas fluxes, soil and water analysis provides us with results that have two important applications,” said KIT senior scientist Michael Dannenmann, who coordinated the setup of the new laboratory. “First, we are able to quantify the effects that deforestation has on greenhouse gas emissions. But we are also able to identify management options for the region that could increase crop yields at minimized environmental costs.”
According to CIFOR senior scientist Mariana Rufino, this facility—and the research it makes possible—is important far beyond the borders of Cameroon and even the Congo Region itself.
“Because the forests of the Central African region are so important for the climate system,” she said, “this research is important for the whole planet. Until now, there has been no way to collect the data needed to make good decisions on the management of the forests, no way to assess the impact that losing the forest has on our climate.”
It’s also almost impossible to overstate the value of the forests in the Congo Basin. Apart from the trove of biodiversity they harbor, they are vital in global efforts to tackle climate change. Their potential for mitigating global warming is enormous, as they store an estimated 30 billion metric tons of carbon.
They also directly support the livelihoods of 60 million people, providing them with life’s essentials—fuel, food, medicines and shelter—acting as a form of livelihood insurance during times of crisis.
And while deforestation rates are still relatively low in the Congo Basin region as a whole (about 0.17 percent annually between 2000 and 2005), this is not likely to hold true for long. Scientists predict that the drivers of deforestation will grow, among them rising demands for fuelwood extraction around large urban areas; growing populations; more logging in rural areas and thus more conversion of forest to agricultural land; and shifting cultivation leading to forest degradation and fragmentation.
These labs... allow scientists in Africa to collect the data needed by governments to recognize the importance of land use change and what it means for climate change so they can make sound decisions and policies
Add to this that the predicted impacts of climate change, which bring economic, social and environmental losses from which the people of the region will not be spared. In recent years, investments have been made to try to establish programs in the region to reduce emissions through deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), but the jury is still out on how successful those will be.
According to the World Bank, the Congo Basin’s population is set to double between 2000 and 2030, when 170 million people will need food, energy, shelter and employment in the region. It is also likely to enter a new development cycle with more exposure to the international market, and global economic factors driving more investment in the Congo Basin.
Knowing how all of this will affect the region—its forests, greenhouse gas emissions, its people, their livelihoods and their vulnerability to climate change—has never been more urgent.
Hence the immense value of the CIFOR/KIT environmental research laboratory in Yaoundé.
ONE SMALL STEP
In addition to setting up the lab and offering guidance on the fieldwork design, KIT also provides expertise on the use of the sophisticated greenhouse gas flux measurement equipment. In this way, the lab ensures not just successful technology transfer, but also doubles as a place where the next generation of environmental scientists and technicians from the region can hone their skills in environmental and climate change research.
The Yaoundé lab is not a standalone facility. CIFOR, KIT and its partners are working together to realize a larger, far-sighted plan to develop a network of expertise and facilities that can help build climate change research capacity across Africa and strengthen cooperation among African countries.
The lab in Cameroon complements the work of a larger center of excellence for environmental research recently set up in Kenya. The Mazingira Center—mazingira is Kiswahili for “environment”—is the first of its kind in East Africa.
“These labs and research projects are small first steps,” Rufino said. “They allow scientists in Africa to collect the data needed by governments to recognize the importance of land use change and what it means for climate change so they can make sound decisions and policies. So yes, these may be only first steps, but they are important first steps.”
Although the lab is used by CIFOR scientists, it also offers opportunities to budding researchers in the various Cameroonian universities to build capacities in aspects of biodiversity and climate change.