Nobel Peace Laureate Urges Congo Basin Forest Conservation

NEW YORK, New York, May 18, 2005 (ENS) - Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai Tuesday appealed to the United Nations Forum on Forests to help the people and governments of Central Africa to safeguard the forest ecosystems of the Congo Basin, the world's second-largest river basin after the Amazon. Maathai was addressing forest ministers from around the world gathered at UN headquarters to determine the future direction of global forest conservation.

Managing the Basin's resources sustainably and equitably for the long term would help to stabilize the planet's atmosphere and ecology, and would foster peace in an area where many wars have been fought over resources, said Dr. Maathai, who is the Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystems and also Kenya's Deputy Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources.

The Congo Basin spreads over "200 million hectares – 18 percent of the world's tropical forests – and carries 400 mammal species and more than 10,000 plant species. It is home to thousands of indigenous people, who depend on the ecosystem to sustain their livelihoods," she told the Forum's fifth session.

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2004 Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Respect for democracy, the environment and peace were necessary components of stable states, Maathai said. The poor, oppressed and frustrated inevitably grew angry and acted to undermine peace and security at the local, regional and global levels, she said.

To combat that trend, she has focused her efforts on linking her environmental movement to the principles of democracy and peace, in order to send a message about the need to manage the environment more sustainably, accountably and equitably.

The groups that sought to exploit the Congo basin could find alternatives for their livelihoods, she concluded, but there are no alternatives to the existence of such ecosystems. Once they had been lost, poverty would only grow.

In developing policies and legislation to manage their forests, Central African political leaders have called for a trust fund for good governance to be created with the debt servicing funds saved by cancellation of their external debts, she noted.

Given the new focus on accountability, transparency and democracy shown by many African leaders, the international community should support this venture and assist in setting up the trust fund, said Maathai.

She remarked that the international response to the Asian tsunami had been powerful, but lamented that "many silent tsunamis" continue to plague Africa, without prompting any such international response.

The governments had to be encouraged to see that writing documents on forest conservation should be followed by mobilizing their people to translate words into action by putting their hands into the soil and growing seedlings, she later told a news conference Tuesday, using the contrast between eroded Haiti and the green neighboring Dominican Republic in the Caribbean as an example.

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Congo rainforest trees in flower (Photo by M. Marzot courtesy FAO)
From the smallest to the largest, forests must be protected, emphasized Maathai, who has become internationally renowned for her treeplanting work. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, through which women in the villages of Kenya have planted more than 10 million trees to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. Dr. Maathai is the first woman in central or eastern Africa to hold a Ph.D., in veterinary medicine, the first woman head of a university department in Kenya, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.

The UN panel coordinating global forestry issues is meeting to review of the status of a five year-old international accord to promote management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests.

Forum Chairman Manual Rodriguez-Becerra of Colombia told journalists that governments must be challenged because the world's forests are at crisis level. About 90 percent of existing forest cover is found in only 24 countries, he said.

At the Forum's opening session on Monday, he said that many of the poorest communities that rely upon forests are "in despair, suffering from increased poverty and inequality. The chasm should be reduced by attempts to obtaining better implementation of agreed goals, as well as strengthening and re-evaluating existing regulations," he said.

Rodriguez-Becerra said he would draft a ministerial declaration on the outcome of the high-level segment, to be sent to this fall’s UN Millennium Summit review, and most delegates agreed that it should reflect the major decisions taken by the present session of the Forum regarding the future of the international arrangement on forests.

Addressing the Forum in the afternoon was the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who said the global forest dialogue had been one of the international processes of greatest importance to indigenous peoples.

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Two pygmies with a tree they felled in the Congo rainforest (Photo by M. Marzot courtesy FAO)
It had been encouraging to see emerging UN standards on forests affirm secure land rights for indigenous people, said Tauli-Corpuz, as well as their full participation in forest policy-making, recognition of traditional forest knowledge, and promotion of community forest management.

A rights-based approach to forest policy and implementation, which would empower indigenous peoples and local communities, is the best way forward, she said.

The Indigenous Forum, like that for forests, occupies a distinct position in the United Nations structure. The purpose of both is to raise the political profile and promote concrete actions on their issues.

Meeting through May 27, the UN Forum on Forests will review the effectiveness of the International Arrangement on Forests (IAF) and deliberate on next steps. The Forum was established in 2000 and is the IAF's convening body. More than 300 government officials, including 40 ministers responsible for forests are attending the meeting.

The meeting's guiding document will be Secretary-General Kofi Annan's latest report, which reveals that despite substantial progress in the formulation and implementation of national forest policies, deforestation and forest degradation continue at an alarming rate. He stresses the critical role of forests in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, noting that close to 1.6 billion people depend to varying degrees on forests for their livelihoods.

"The alarming rate of deforestation continues to warrant international attention and there is a need to renew the pledge to combat deforestation and restore forest functions (such as production, protection and conservation) at the landscape level, by rehabilitating degraded lands with, inter alia, forest plantations, and to improve the livelihoods of poor people living in and around forests worldwide as a priority," Annan's report says.

The Forum on Forests is not the result of a legally binding treaty, and some environmental groups are urging that such a treaty on forest conservation should be adopted quickly. “The current crisis facing the world’s ancient forests, such as accelerating rates of species loss and deforestation, requires immediate attention and strong political will to shift the devastating trend,” said Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace International forests campaigner.

“Forest dependent peoples do not need any more recycling of nice words on UN paper," said Kaiser. "World leaders need to take their cue from the Kyoto Protocol and create a similar legally binding agreement for the last ancient forests.”