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Congo Basin Forests Saved by Government Action, Timber Certification
BONN, Germany, May 27, 2008 (ENS) - The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo today announced plans to designate at least 50,190 square miles of the Earth's second largest rainforest region as new protected areas. At present, nine percent of country, corresponding to 8,494 square miles, is conserved in various categories of protected areas.

"I was deeply impressed by the decision of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to conserve its forest resources by establishing new protected areas, while at the same time ensuring sustainable use by the inhabitants," German Federal Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told his Congolese counterpart José Endundo Bononge.

"This will benefit not only the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also the international community, for protecting the country's vast forests with their enormous carbon stocks helps to mitigate climate change and conserve the wealth of this forest biodiversity," said Gabriel.

The German minister suggested to Minister Bononge that the new protected areas be incorporated into the new global LifeWeb Initiative. This funding initiative for protected areas was introduced by Germany at the ongoing Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD, now underway in Bonn.

The Life Web Initiative aims to support the implementation of the CBD Program of Work on Protected Areas through enhancing partnerships at a global level.

The initiative will match voluntary commitments for the designation of new protected areas and the improved management of existing areas with commitments for dedicated financing of these areas.

Forest on the banks of the Congo river system, Equatorial Province, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo by Filip Verbelen courtesy Greenpeace)

The Congo Basin in Central Africa is a 700,000 square mile tropical forest that extends across six countries and is the world's largest tropical forest outside of the Amazon.

The largest part of the Congo Basin forest lies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC.

Often referred to as DR Congo or DRC, and formerly known as Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-Léopoldville, Congo-Kinshasa, and Zaire, this is the third largest country by area on the African continent.

It is not to be confused with Republic of the Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, a separate country that lies to the north and west of the adjacent DRC.

The entire forested area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including dry forests, covers around 386,000 square miles (one million square kilometers) - an area larger than France and Germany combined.

The rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo contain many rare and endemic species, such as chimpanzees and their smaller cousins, the bonobos, mountain gorillas, okapi and white rhinos.

Five of the country's national parks are listed as World Heritage Sites - the Garumba, Kahuzi-Biega, Salonga and Virunga National Parks, and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. All five sites are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage In Danger.

Map showing the Democratic Republic of the Congo in white and Republic of the Congo in beige. (Map courtesy CIA)

From 1998 to 2003, the country suffered from the devastating Second Congo War, the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. Related fighting still continues in the east of the country.

The civil war and resulting poor economic conditions have endangered much of this biodiversity. Most park wardens were either killed or could not afford to continue their work.

Besides combating illegal logging, for the conservation of the Congo Basin forest and its abundant biodiversity it is essential to introduce principles of sustainable management and a protected area regime for these forests and the diverse animals and plants that inhabit them.

The conservation of the Congo Basin forests is the focus of the international Congo Basin Forest Partnership, currently being coordinated by Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Germany is providing the Congo Basin region with a total of over 53 million euro for the protection of the tropical forests.

Elsewhere in the Congo Basin today, the timber company Congolaise Industrielle des Bois and the Tropical Forest Trust announced that the company has more than doubled the amount of certified rainforest it operates in the Congo Basin, creating the world's largest tract of contiguous certified tropical forest.

Congolaise Industrielle des Bois, a subsidiary of the Danish DLH group, was awarded its most recent Forest Stewardship Council certificate for lands the company operates in the Pokola rainforest in Congo-Brazzaville.

This region represents the second of the company's four forest areas to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which first recognized the timber company in 2006, when it certified 297,000 hectares of its land in the Kabo rainforest.

A wild Western lowland gorilla in the Congo Basin. (Photo by Richard Parnell courtesy WCS)

The certified area now covers a total of 2,895 square miles of natural tropical forest managed by Congolaise Industrielle des Bois in the northern part of Congo-Brazzaville, a region that is home to thousands of indigenous peoples, and is inhabited by forest elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees.

To meet the standards for obtaining the approval from the Forest Stewardship Council, the timber company drew on the expertise of staff of the nonprofit Tropical Forest Trust, TFT, based in Geneva.

Tropical Forest Trust was instrumental in helping the timber company meet the needs of the Pygmy communities in the Congo Basin, said Robert Hunink, executive vice president of the DLH Group, and president of the Congolaise Industrielle des Bois, CIB, Supervisory Board.

"The TFT, along with other partners, provided us with technical guidance and access to new technologies, including a handheld mapping device that has made it possible for the Pygmy communities to communicate to us the specific forest resources that they hold sacred," Hunink said.

One of the innovative techniques developed during this partnership is participatory mapping. Using icon-based Global Positioning System, or GPS, units designed for non-literate people, the semi-nomadic Pygmies living within the forest concession walk through their forest and locate resources or areas of significance.

For instance, at a large tree prized for its edible caterpillars, or an important collecting area for medicinal plants, the Pygmies select the appropriate icon and the GPS records the location.

This data forms the basis for resource maps, which bridge the communication gap between the people in the forest and the forest company and enable a fair negotiation.

Indigenous cartographers and community members walk between the forest sites to be protected in CIB logging plans. December 2005. (Photo by John Nelson courtesy Forest Peoples Programme)

"Such activities, backed by the commitment and dedication of CIB's management and staff, have been essential in our efforts to obtain certification," said Hunink. "Under often challenging circumstances, our CIB colleagues and their partners, have achieved what many in the industry have long thought impossible, while maintaining the exceptionally high Forest Stewardship Council standard throughout a series of robust audits."

"I think the CIB approach is a living, breathing example that timber production does not have to be synonymous with the destruction of tropical forests," said Scott Poynton, TFT's executive director. "What we hope to demonstrate with our work in the Congo and elsewhere is that there are rewards for companies that do things the right way.

The partnership with Congolaise Industrielle des Bois is just the start, Poynton said. "Forest destruction in the Congo Basin continues at an alarming rate and we need to find new mechanisms for scaling up."

To accomplish this, the Trust is launching the Centre of Social Excellence for the Forests of the Congo Basin. This new project will focus on improving the understanding and linkages between forestry companies and indigenous communities.

It will encourage dialogue and sustainability by offering recent graduates of central African universities opportunities to become experts in forest management. The 1.6 million euro project has been granted key support from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

Tropical Forest Trust members are based in Europe, North America, South East Asia, Africa and New Zealand. They include more than 50 multi-national retail giants and small retailers committed to purchasing only legally harvested timber. TFT has forged partnerships with governments, timber companies, and international organizations to expand the forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Poynton said, "Now it is up to consumer markets to respond to this increase in availability of Forest Stewardship Council products and chose sustainably produced wood product over those from dubious origins."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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