Central Africa: Battling deforestation, balancing development

The challenge of cleaning up commodity chains while maintaining livelihoods
Rachel Olo, a Cameroonian cocoa farmer whose one hectare of land brings 800 kg of cocoa per year. CIFOR Photo/Ollivier Girard

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In the struggle to curtail forest loss and degradation, experts writing in Chapter 8 of the Central Africa Forest Observatory (OFAC)’s Congo Basin Forests – State of the Forests 2021 report say that social and economic consequences for Central African commodity-producing countries must be kept front of mind.

Ambiguities in the definition of the word “forest”, and consequently “deforestation”, contribute to the challenge at hand. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the European Union, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), among other entities and countries, have each come out with their own definitions, which depend on different variables.

According to report co-authors Louis Defo – a senior project manager at Proforest – there is a need to make precise reference to the retained definition of forest, and to the method used to estimate its area, when quantifying deforestation. “The deforestation estimated by FAO at the level of each country will neither correspond to that estimated from satellite data as carried out by the University of Maryland, nor especially to that estimated by approximately 75% of the countries, whose national definition differs from that of FAO,” said Defo. In Central Africa, four countries – Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo – have established a national definition of forest, while the other seven countries of the sub-region are in the process of doing so.

Direct drivers of deforestation in Central Africa are the production and exploitation of commodities which involve a change in land use. National economies in the sub-region are not very diversified and depend heavily on the export of agricultural commodities and mining products, with palm oil, cocoa, coffee, rubber, cotton, and timber being the major deforestation-heavy sectors.

Timber is traded both domestically and internationally. A considerable amount of tropical hardwood is presently being extracted from natural forests and logging concessions in Central Africa. There has also been a resurgence since the 1990s of interest in national and international investments in forest plantations for timber production and as carbon sinks, a practice that first surfaced during the colonial era. The researchers cited the forest plantations of Ayous–Batouri (Cameroon); Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire (Congo); Goma and Bateke plateau (DR Congo); and Mvoum (Gabon) as examples of forest plantations that sit mainly on degraded and already-deforested lands.

Clearing forests for monocultural oil palm plantations was identified as a considerable contributing factor to deforestation in Central Africa. These plantations cover around 500,000 hectares of the region – mainly in DR Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon – but regional production is not yet sufficient to meet demand.

Cocoa – which has been cultivated in Central Africa since the end of the 19th century, primarily as a cash crop – is being grown in Cameroon, DR Congo, Congo, and Gabon on vast plantations established on former woodlands. Cameroon has positioned itself as Central Africa’s main cocoa producer, but exports across the subregion have been variable in recent years.

Coffee and cotton are also cultivated in Central Africa, largely for export. Rubber production is driving deforestation in the sub-region, especially in the Congo Basin’s Cuvette Centrale, where plantation expansion has been occurring since the 1970s. In Cameroon, production is dominated by private businesses owned by global franchise Halcyon Agri, whose domain covers over 99,000 hectares.

Confronted by the issue of deforestation, stakeholders in the production and export of these commodities have taken various measures to mitigate the impact of their activities, which range from support for initiatives against deforestation to the promotion of certification, sensitization, capacity building, and regulatory action.

Deforestation and development

The states of the Congo Basin have joined several bilateral and/or multilateral initiatives aimed at stopping illegal deforestation linked to the production of agricultural and forestry products. For timber, these include the EU’s FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements, Central African Forest Initiative and Tropical Forest Alliance. There are also several forest protection initiatives led by national and international environmental non-governmental organizations. Policies in importing economies such as the US, China, and the EU also help to keep deforestation in check.

However, given that the strategies to combat imported deforestation are principally designed by importing countries, the researchers posit that if care is not taken these will have perverse effects on the development trajectories drawn up and implemented by the countries of Central Africa. To that end, co-author and Central Africa Forest Programme Coordinator at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Belmond Tchoumba said that promoting negotiation approaches within blocs like the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) will help cushion the negative economic impacts linked to the adoption and implementation of policies to combat imported deforestation, particularly into Europe. 

“The approaches taken by Central African countries could start by seeking to harmonize, for example, the technical definitions of “forest” and the means of monitoring deforestation,” Tchoumba said. “Unifying definitions based on the well-known ecological characteristics of these forests should be a priority across the region, where the population is increasing with its need for agricultural land.”


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The research has been supported by the European Commission through the RIOFAC project.


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Topic(s) :   Deforestation