ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire (20 September, 2013)_In response to the dramatic decline of forest cover in West Africa, 15 member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have agreed to work together across borders to protect and manage the region’s forests and wildlife.
“States need common policies on how to manage their resources. Many forest-related issues, such as livestock or wildlife crossing national borders at different seasons, cannot be managed by one country on its own,” said Michael Balinga, regional scientist for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in West Africa, who took part in the meetings.
“This decision sends a strong message that governments are serious about managing their forests more effectively — we finally have a policy document for all of West Africa.”
The Convergence Plan for the Sustainable Management and use of Forest Ecosystems in West Africa was adopted alongside the Sub-regional Action Program to Combat Desertification at a meeting on 12 September 2013.
The meeting also recommended that member states increase current investments in the forestry sector by at least 5 percent of their national budgets, and that 50 percent of the final convergence plan budget be allocated to activities in the field.
“The ministers themselves came up with the figure of 5 percent,” Balinga said. “But the percentage may go up or down as more studies are conducted to look at the contribution of the forestry sector to each country.”
According to the convergence plan, forests and wooded areas cover some 72 million hectares of West African territory, or about 14 percent of land. Apart from their value to the economy as woodfuel and timber, the plan noted, the forests provide a variety of ecosystem services that support development and other sectors such as agriculture, water and energy. As carbon sinks, forests also play an important role in combating climate change by storing greenhouse gases.
However, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Global Forest Assessment 2010 reported that 870,000 ha of forests were lost in the sub-region each year between 2000 and 2010. The convergence plan notes that these losses were due primarily to illegal cutting, brush fires, extensive agriculture (farming over large areas of land with low productivity) and transhumance (moving livestock from one grazing area to another), as well as legal, political, technical and economic limitations.
In response to the dramatic decline of forests in the sub-region, member states launched the West African Forest Dialogue in 2006 to develop more collaborative approaches to transboundary management of forestry and wildlife.
In addition to national governments, the process engaged regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, private sector, civil society and institutions such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), FAO and CIFOR.
“CIFOR scientists contributed advice about what approaches have worked before, and what might be problematic for technical reasons,” said Balinga, one of the CIFOR scientists who have been supporting the process since 2006.
The lengthy process was due in part to building consensus along the way. Each country prepared a report informed by consultations with major forestry institutions at the national and international level, as well as with NGOs, civil society and other stakeholders. These country studies were then summarized in three sectoral documents focusing on wildlife, protected areas and ecotourism; legal and land tenure issues; and socioeconomic aspects of forest management.
Drawing on these three reports, the convergence plan presents a vision for sustainable management of forest and wildlife resources for the benefit of people as well as the environment by 2025. It identifies seven priorities:
- Harmonization of forestry policies and legislation;
- Better knowledge of current forest ecosystem dynamics to create a baseline for future action;
- Management and reforestation of forest ecosystems;
- Biodiversity conservation;
- Enhancement of ecosystem goods and services for food security, economic stability and environmental sustainability;
- Forestry research and development;
- Information, education and communication.
“The ministers also embraced the idea of promoting ‘green economies’,” Balinga said. “This concept is relatively new, and not everyone understands what it means, but it’s another example of how West Africa is engaging with the global discourse on how the environment should be managed.”
Central Africa has a similar sub-regional plan in place, Balinga pointed out, enabling countries to benefit from better coordination and more funding for forest protection and management.
“It’s hoped this will also happen in West Africa,” he said. “Once governments start putting in seed money, it will be an incentive for donors to kick in their own funds.”
The ECOWAS Steering Committee will review next steps for implementation of the convergence plan in November.
“It’s one thing to have a sub-regional agreement, but another to implement it at the national level,” Balinga said. “Each state will need to build on the plan by identifying priority activities and earmarking a budget.”
For more information about the issues in this article, contact Michael Balinga at firstname.lastname@example.org
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