The forests of Central Africa, which for a long time remained unspoiled, are now increasingly subject to deforestation and degradation. In the face of critical threats to the wellbeing of these ecosystems, experts say that forest landscape restoration (FLR) has been set as a priority, and national responses in the countries of the sub-region appear robust. In a new report on the state of Congo Basin forests produced by the Central Africa Forest Observatory (OFAC), the co-authors note that many country commitments and strategies have been initiated within the framework of FLR, while significant funding is being put in place and some smaller projects are already underway.
The authors of Chapter 12 of the report define FLR as “a long-term process that seeks to limit continued degradation of existing forest ecosystems and/or to repair them, so as to sustainably improve the living environment of local people.” It entails a change in the rules of interaction between natural and social dynamics, and may include forest rehabilitation efforts such as plantations, assisted natural regeneration, or water and soil management on areas that are individually owed or common property.
Two leading causes of forest cover loss in Central Africa’s humid zone are slash-and-burn and subsistence agriculture. Exploitation for firewood, excessive use of pastoral fires, livestock roaming, agro-industries, mining, and the establishment of refugee camps are other key drivers with significant local impact. Besides the creation of forest tracks for logging which fuels the opening of fields by growing populations, inconsistencies in international public policies are also to blame, with forest plantation projects aimed at reducing pressure on natural forests being abandoned in the 1990s.
Under the Bonn Challenge, a global endeavour to reforest 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2030, the countries of Central Africa have committed to reverse the trend of forest and land degradation. Targets include the restoration of 12 million hectares in Cameroon, 8 million hectares in DRC, 3.5 million hectares in Central African Republic, 2 million hectares each in Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo, and 1.4 million hectares in Chad. These commitments are being implemented under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), the African version of the Bonn Challenge. AFR100 also contributes to the African Resilient Landscapes Initiative (ARLI), the African Union Agenda 2063, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Commendable efforts, structural challenges
In 1975, the Cameroonian government set up a provincial committee to combat drought in its arid northern regions; through a campaign named Operation Green Sahel, large-scale reforestation took place. The campaign was then relaunched in 2006, after Cameroon designed a National Action Plan to Combat Desertification (NAP/LCD) in a bid to comply with its commitments to the UNCCD. Cameroon has also set up a plot-based restoration system to cope with land degradation on cotton-growing areas in the north of the country: between 2004 and 2017, actions to develop soil fertility preservation habits among cotton producers were carried out on an estimated 2 million hectares of degraded lands. In addition, the country has committed to implementing the Great Green Wall initiative, which aims to increase the amount of arable land in the Sahel region. It also validated a National Plantation Forests Development Programme (NPFDP) in 2019 and supports the contribution of research to the development of FLR actions.
But many of Cameroon’s considerable efforts in this arena are being thwarted by structural problems. Damas Mokpidie, a forestry governance expert at the Central Africa Forest Commission (COMIFAC) and report co-author, said government ministries operate in silos and act in isolation, while FLR requires cross-cutting action. “This generates approaches locally that are contradictory and that lead to land conflicts,” he said. Another structural problem is the weakness of national research on forest ecology, forestry, agronomy, and forest plantations. This is “linked in particular to the lack of stable financing, which is an obstacle to stimulating the innovations needed for FLR on the ground,” said Mokpidie.
Like Cameroon, DR Congo also suffers from structural weaknesses in FLR implementation. Besides the lack of a mechanism for intersectoral coordination at provincial, local, and chieftaincy levels, the researchers say the country’s institutional and technical capacities are insufficient to implement an integrated and effective approach to restoration that would make it possible to fight land degradation and achieve sustainable management. The government has developed a provincial and national strategy for FLR, but this has not yet been validated.
The Central African Republic, for its part, collaborated with the World Resources Institute to conduct a 2016-2018 study using the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM), which led to the development of a strategy paper to guide its FLR policy. Meanwhile, in Burundi, efforts to slow down the degradation of natural forests and promote afforestation date back to the 1940s and the Belgian colonial administration. After independence, the country put in place a ‘Development of Burundi’s Forest Sector’ policy paper in 1969, which set the national exploitation quota for natural forests at 650 hectares per year, and reforestation at 100,000 hectares over 30 years. A reforestation programme launched in 1978 saw about 75,000 hectares planted by 1992, but these efforts were crushed by the war waged in the country from 1993 to 2003, which led to the degradation of forest resources.
As the Congo Basin forests are continuously under threat, the researchers state that improving people’s relationship with nature is crucial, as simply planting trees is insufficient. They also recommend consistent monitoring of the ecological and socioeconomic effects of FLR, as restoration is a complex operation. In addition, FLR financing for the subregion currently depends largely on donors and the private sector, both of which tend to carry out development projects over four to five years, with performance indicators associated with these durations. The researchers say donors must adapt their practices, as rehabilitation is a long-term process.
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