The report provides key recommendations to improve Central Africa
About 50 regional and global authors worked to create this 400-page report, which serves as an update to the 2015 edition and now includes more details on topics such as pastoralism, human-wildlife conflict and extractive industries.
It was published by the Central African Forests Observatory (OFAC), which brings together data on the ecosystems of the 10 member countries of the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC), an intergovernmental organization that works for the protection of forests in the region. The report was produced with the support of a multitude of organizations, including the European Union (EU), the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) and GIZ.
“This report makes a significant contribution to the analysis of the many factors that determine the success of protected areas in Central Africa, but also of the challenges that will need to be addressed in order to achieve the overall goals set”, says Trevor Sandwith, Program Director. World Conservation Union (IUCN) World Conservation Union in a press release.
Central Africa contains some of the most iconic and ecologically significant landscapes in the world. A biodiversity hotspot and a key element in the fight against climate change, the region is home to the second largest tropical forest in the world – the Congo Basin – which is home to a great diversity of species and supports around 80 million people.
However, the protected areas of Central Africa are also strongly threatened, in particular by development and illegal activities such as poaching. Some areas are plagued by instability and violence, and park rangers regularly face dangers. In January of this year, six rangers in the Virunga National Park in Congo were killed by a local militia.
Nonetheless, the report finds that protected areas in Central Africa represent 15 percent of the country’s land area and 5 percent of the marine area, totaling 799,000 square kilometers. This represents an increase of about 20 percent between 2011 and 2020, indicating progress towards achieving Aichi Target 11, a global target enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity that aims to protect 17 percent. of terrestrial habitats and 10 percent of the world’s marine habitats.
In fact, three countries in the region – Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic and São Tomé and Príncipe – have already achieved this target, strictly considering what is defined as “protected areas” under national law. While World Heritage sites, Ramsar sites and biosphere reserves are also included, the only countries in Central Africa that have yet to meet this target are Burundi and Rwanda.
However, the authors highlight several areas for improvement, including strengthening the governance of protected areas and better management of their relations with extractive industries such as mining and oil extraction.
Management of protected areas
Traditional management of protected areas, according to the report, dates back to colonial times and excluded indigenous and local communities from the management of their resources. This has led to conflicts or the eviction of traditional inhabitants from these areas, such as the Baka peoples of the Congo Basin.
“[Colonial-era] Protected area management policies and frameworks have failed to fully integrate key success factors, such as social, cultural and political issues, which in turn triggered negative social impacts on local communities, disrupting their traditional ways of life and limiting their control and access to natural resources, ”explains Bertille Mayen Ndiong, author of the report and project coordinator for Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire for the German development agency GIZ.
“This has considerably undermined policies to protect protected areas due to conflicts between park managers and local communities. It has also significantly reduced the level of compliance of local communities with protected area conservation strategies.
Conservation practices that include indigenous and local populations are seen as an alternative to the classic model of conservation against local communities. To achieve this, the authors recommend decentralization of management and greater involvement of the community.
One example is Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda, where 10 percent of the park’s income from tourism goes to socio-economic projects aimed at local communities. They also participate in the management of the park, for example by carrying out patrols, fighting forest fires and helping research.
The participation of community members in the management of protected areas encourages them to comply with area policies, as Mayen Ndiong and her team discovered after assessing three protected areas between 2016 and 2020 on their social impact on communities. local authorities, their governance at the site level and the effectiveness of management. .
“Our studies suggest that greater inclusion of local communities in the management of protected areas is one of the key strategies for ensuring the success of conservation strategies,” she says.
The report suggests that inhabitants are informed both of their rights and of the importance of conservation, thereby reducing misunderstandings between communities and environmental experts and thus enabling inhabitants to become the protectors of the land themselves.
Greater regional cooperation is also needed, as many protected areas cross national borders. Better coordination can produce positive results, as evidenced by the increase in the number of mountain gorillas in recent decades thanks to better cross-border collaboration between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
Other management changes the authors call include extending projects to last at least 10 years and improving the training of future managers, for example by offering more workshops and internships. Training programs should also be tailored to people in rural areas who may be illiterate but often equipped with essential knowledge and skills.
Protected areas in Central Africa are rich not only in biodiversity but also in natural resources. Under their soils lie a treasure trove of much in demand raw materials such as oil, gas, copper, cobalt, manganese, uranium and diamonds.
The economies of many Central African countries depend heavily on these types of extractive industries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s top five exports in 2019, for example, were refined copper, cobalt, copper ore, crude oil, and crude copper. In total, these products accounted for about 89 percent of the country’s total export value of USD 8.16 billion.
“African countries are all in search of economic development. They rely on the richness of their soil to achieve these goals, ”explains Georges Belmond Tchoumba, another author of the report and coordinator of the Central African regional forestry program at the World Wildlife Fund. “Unfortunately, these natural resources overlap with the rich biological diversity of these countries. “
The report states that 60 percent of the region’s protected areas – including forest landscapes – are covered by contracts with such extractive industries. And 100 percent of the region’s maritime exclusive economic zones are licensed for gas or oil drilling, including in protected areas. In contrast, conservation laws in most Central African countries prohibit most industrial activities in protected areas, but mining and petroleum interests often flout these rules.
Worse yet, governments sometimes come under pressure to remove the protected status of an area for resource extraction, such as when the Congolese government in 2018 attempted to downgrade the 21.5% status of Virunga National Park to make way for oil and gas exploration.
“In general, we have observed that mining and petroleum laws have a certain preeminence over those which protect biological diversity. This is why in many Central African countries there is a great temptation to downgrade protected areas in favor of mining, ”explains Tchoumba.
“If these decommissioning plans are not always carried out, it is very often thanks to international campaigns led by environmentalists against economic operators and not always by the desire of States to protect their biological diversity.
Mining and drilling are well-known threats to protected areas. In addition to stripping the soil of vegetation and hunting wildlife, they can harm local communities, for example by poisoning water resources. But can these industries be co-opted to minimize the damage they inflict on the environment?
One way may be to empower and regulate artisanal miners. In virtually all countries of Central Africa, there is a small-scale mining sector which is often illegal and operates within protected areas. The report’s authors recommend legalizing these artisanal mining operations outside protected areas, encouraging them to form cooperatives or professional organizations, and then governing them with stricter regulations. These artisanal miners, for example, would be prohibited from mining in protected areas, trading in ivory, child labor or the use of harmful pollutants such as mercury.
A similar idea is proposed for large companies: to allow their activities in less protected areas as long as the conservation objectives of these places can still be achieved.
The authors claim that when oil companies strictly follow regulations and laws, then the environmental impact can be controlled. However, they note that this strategy may not be feasible until governments are strong enough to effectively monitor these activities and enforce the law. For many Central African countries, this is just not yet the case.
In the meantime, the report calls for environmental education and awareness throughout society, as protected areas are often viewed by rulers as underutilized land, while many local people see them as restrictions that keep them down. in poverty.
While protected areas offer many benefits such as water supply and microclimate regulation, these benefits are described as often unequally shared in society. Thus, the importance of environmental services must be brought to the attention of communities and decision-makers.
“For many countries in Central Africa, protecting the environment remains a luxury they cannot afford,” says Tchoumba. “It is not always one of their priorities either, despite the international agreements to which they subscribe.
“It will be extremely difficult for the protection of biological diversity to resist the development of extractive industries unless we develop models of economic development that integrate biodiversity as an economically valuable resource. “