Congo Basin. The biodiversity sanctuaries in danger

The Congo Forests are in danger. Biodiversity is declining and poaching persists even in Protected Areas.

The Congo Basin, one of the world’s main biodiversity sanctuaries is in danger. The area which is inhabited by over 100 million people over 4 million sq km and which is 45% covered by dense forests is indeed confronted to many challenges including its demographic boom. Indeed, the population of the five main countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon) is expected to reach 228 m. inhabitants by 2050.
Such growth combined with the soaring demand from both commercial and subsistence agriculture in a context of widespread poverty is increasing the pressure on the protected areas.


Bad governance, considered as “major problem” in Central Africa by a European Commission of 2015 is an additional change. In both Congos, oil concessions are overlapping the territories of protected areas, which are the fragile sanctuaries of biodiversity. Poaching is one of the main threats explains the UK-based Rainforest Foundation in a report titled « Protected Areas in the Congo Basin : failing people and biodiversity ? » published in 2016. Large mammal populations (elephants, bongos or forest antilopes, gorillas and chimpanzees), are declining at an alarming rate despite the fact that the surface of protected areas has increased significantly over the last years, reaching 17% of the territory in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville. The white rhino has disappeared from its habitat in the Garamba National Park of the DRC and lions are on the verge of extinction in the entire Congo Basin. Between 2002 and 2013, the population of forest elephants, (loxodonta africana cyclotis) has shrunk by 62%.  According to a 2013 report from the Central African Forests Observatory (OFAC), since 2000, the population of bonobos, gorillas and chimps has diminished by 18% to 62% according to species.


Poaching has become a major source of revenue for the armed groups. Boko Haram jihadists are involved in ivory trafficking in Cameroon. In Eastern DRC, all national parks have become sanctuaries for rebel groups. Last April, the Garamba Park manager and three rangers were injured during a clash against Lord Resistance Army guerrillas. During years, the Epulu Reserve of okapis in the Eastern Province of the DRC has been invaded by troops of the warlord Morgan. Beside the activity of criminal groups, poaching is also triggered by the tremendous boom of the bushmeat market which is depopulating protected area and has become the first cause of the reduction of animal populations, according to the EU Commission.


The logging industry is also listed among the threats by OFAC because it causes soil erosion, water pollution and affects the regeneration capacity of the forests. Besides, it also opens the way to poachers and other predators. According to the Rainforest Foundation, illegal logging is particularly intense in the Boumba-Bek and Nki national parks in Cameroon. A company called ITB has been accused by Greenpeace to have logged inside the bonobo monkeys sanctuary in Northern DRC. Rainforest Foundation’s Louise Rodgers stresses that industrial exploitation has negative consequences in protected areas, because it reduces biodiversity in contiguous areas and disrupts vertical stratification of the microclimate in the canopy and in the end, contribute to more bushfires.
The rush for charcoal which represents up to 92% of the DRC’s energy consumption is another threat, specially inside the Virunga Park, the mountain gorillas sanctuary, close to the town of Goma which has more than one million inhabitants, says Professor Theodore Trefon, who teaches forest governance at the Kinshasa Regional School of Forest and Tropical Territories Management (ERAIFT). On top of that, he stresses, the lucrative charcoal business is in the hands of militias. In Trefon’s view, that situation is the price for the absence of an integrated energy strategy in DRC which fails to tap the enormous hydroelectricity potential of 100,000 MW. The slash and burn agriculture model, which was suited in the context of small population density, is becoming increasingly unsustainable and poses an additional threat to the Congo Basin forests, warns Trefon. One should also take into consideration the poor fertility of the soils, mainly ferralsols, which can be exhausted in just three years, explains Cédric Vermeulen, specialist in forest management at the Liege University (Belgium), whereas at least 15 years are required to make them fertile again.


The agro-industry and specially palmoil companies such as Singapore-based OLAM International are described as well as threats for the Congolese forests by the Libreville-based Brainforest organisation. The Rainforest Foundation and experts from Mc Kinsey also report that 2 million hectares of forests are about to be converted into palmoil plantations across the region. Mining is also a threat for the Central African forests ecosystems, warns OFAC. The  Rainforest Foundation has calculated that two thirds of the 34 protected areas analysed in its report, are overlapped by mining concessions. The proportion reaches 39% in the case of oil concessions. According to a 2012 study of the World Resources Institute, 3.5 million ha of mining concessions were overlapping protected areas in the DRC alone. One of the most notorious cases, is the Virunga National Park, where, in violation of the environment national legislation and of its international commitments, President Joseph Kabila has awarded exploration permits in 2010 to several oil companies. Similar cases are reported in Gabon and Cameroon by the Rainforest Foundation.


Other threats are posed by climate change. Since 1950, a general trend of higher temperatures and lower precipitations has been recorded and further hydric deficits are expected before the end of this century. The reproduction and the growth of the trees are a stake with the danger of a decline or much frequent bushfires. Besides, climate change can also accelerate biodiversity losses either through the disappearance of species or the decrease of the resilience of disrupted ecosystems.
The development of international trade also bears the potential to encourage biologic invasions which are potentially dangerous for the preservation of the Congo Basin ecosystems. OFAC warns about the “fire ant” (wasmannia auropunctata), which arrived from South America in 1913 on merchant ships and then expanded in Gabon and Cameroon. Accordingly, its incidence on biodiversity can be “very serious” since these very aggressive ants are destroying other species including pollinating ones or on the contrary protect aphids which suck nutritive elements of plants and favour diseases.
In front of all those threats, conservation policies carried out so far have been often inefficient and have failed to take on board the opinion of the local populations, criticises the Rainforest Foundation. It also deplores human rights violations and the lack of land security for the indigenous people which caused the forced displacement of 120,000 people in Central Africa, according to a 2006 study.


The problem arises from the fact that these policies are derived from an old model born in United States at the end of the 19th century, which aimed at the preservation of national parks, creating a “parks versus people” dichotomy. Today however, an increasing number of human sciences specialists recommend a participative approach instead to create a common interest between the communities and the wildlife institutions. Yet, argues the Rainforest Foundation, there is still a long way before Central African populations get systematically consulted on conservation issues.
While coinciding that there is need to involve local people in the conservation strategy, Trefon warns against the temptation of a complete opposite policy which would consist in allowing these people to do everything they want. The risk then would be an increased predation of natural resources and even a reduction of available surfaces for conservation, points out Trefon. At the same time, the ERAIFT professor is advocating for a change of mentality. Accordingly, all stakeholders must realise that forest resources are not endless. In Trefon’s opinion, there is a dire need for a systemic integrated approach. One cannot settle these problems without reforming the energy, food and agricultural policies. « The future of the forests and of their inhabitants depends from a change of habits in towns » he says.

François Misser



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