Congo Basin forests and FAO: deep roots supporting a sustainable future

Dan Rugabira, FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Central Africa and FAO Representative to Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe

Season’s greetings to InfoNews readers from Libreville, Gabon. Serving in this sub-region takes me back to 1990 when, as a young FAO Forestry Operations Officer, I was tasked with running a support programme at the then African Timber Organization based in Libreville, Gabon. My assignment in this sub-region having come full circle, I can now look back at FAO Forestry’s achievements in the Congo Basin over the last two decades and draw some preliminary conclusions with a view to the future.

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Congo basin: the world’s second green lung

Covering some 300 million hectares1, the Congo Basin is the world’s second largest rainforest. It extends across the Democratic Republic of Congo, through most of the Republic of Congo, south-eastern Cameroon and the southern part of the Central African Republic on to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. It also covers to a lesser extent a part of Rwanda and Burundi.

Supporting institutions, starting with capacity

FAO’s support to forestry in the region has centred on enabling member countries to forge robust institutions that can sustainably manage their magnificent natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations. In the 1990s, FAO gave strong support to the idea of a regional institution to look after the interests of the Congo Basin, proposed under the Tropical Forestry Action Plan.

This need for strong national and regional institutions for the sustainable management of Congo Basin forests was recognized by FAO. The Organization therefore charted a new course with its initial support to the Conference on Ecosystems of Dense and Humid Forests of Central Africa, an umbrella organization of partners and civil society engaged in forest conservation that also encompassed international organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the then World Wildlife Fund. However, it soon became apparent that an official institution grouping the Basin member countries was needed. Following several consultations, the Central Africa Forests Commission (Commission des Forets d'Afrique Centrale -COMIFAC) was created in 1999 by the Summit of Heads of State, becoming effective in February 2005, and to which FAO has consistently provided support. Today it is an established regional organization and a reliable FAO partner, fully recognized sub-regionally and globally by all key actors in the forestry sector.

The fundamentals: planning, policy and legal support

Historically, member countries had diverse management and national policies, which did not always prioritize sustainability. FAO supported the Convergence Plan as a way to harmonize member country policies on forest resources, with an emphasis on sustainability and community participation in resource management, and as a positive response to the UN General Assembly Resolution for support to countries involved in the Yaoundé process.

Further support was provided to harmonize member country forestry policies and codes as well as to lend capacity for the formulation of national policies. The process is ongoing in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, and FAO’s leadership is highly recognized.

COMIFAC countries are also being supported by FAO in the design of national monitoring systems, which will provide them with essential data on national forests resources and be the basis for more robust forestry planning and policy making. For countries wishing to participate in REDD+, the systems will cover all requirements in monitoring and measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) in line with international agreements as well as those established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Food security and the contribution of forests

Although the contribution of forests to food security has long been underestimated, FAO activities in the sub-region have demonstrated the importance of non-timber forest products to the food security of forest-dwelling communities and in providing social benefits for many families living in them.

FAO-funded programmes promote non-timber forest products and have enabled member countries to harness knowledge on both their potential and constraints. This support has extended to capacity building, through the creation of small enterprises for the utilization and trade of non-timber forest products. Some of the FAO experiences shared at the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in May 2013 were derived from this region. This includes the essential role of forest insects in providing nutrition to local people.

Looking to the future ...

The increasing consumption of insects is just one area with great scaling-up potential in the region. With additional FAO support, indigenous knowledge and enterprise could be further developed to ensure that local initiatives bring direct benefits to forest dwellers. The rapid depletion of forest wildlife is another area of concern that has prompted FAO and partners to implement a programme for the sustainable management of wildlife and the regulation of bushmeat hunting.

COMIFAC has come of age and can provide advice to its member countries, negotiate on their behalf and attract significant resources and investments to the sector. Although not alone in bringing about these changes, FAO’s contributions are noteworthy and appreciated by both governments and local communities, and it will continue its commitment to the region.

... and identifying challenges

However, future activities call for a shift in emphasis: FAO needs to refocus its support in all aspects of forestry and climate change adaptation and mitigation, particularly in the challenging on-going climate negotiations. Successful sustainable forest management in the region is attainable, but it must begin with capacity building. This is crucial if we wish to empower the community of forest dwellers and those in the vicinity of the forests and assure their right to derive a decent life from the revenues accrued from the forests. If these communities remain central to our development objectives and to our engagement in the region, FAO will be able to rise to future challenges honourably.

Read more on the REDD+ monitoring and surveillance systems (in French).

[1](Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010)

©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Forestry news

Forest-farm producers: fundamental to agricultural systems

Who are the world’s forest producers, what is their role in agricultural systems, and how can the needs of 1.6 billion forest-dependent people be prioritized and their rights respected? These are just some of the questions that FAO’s Forest and Farm Facility is working to have included in mainstream sustainable development discourse and action, particularly as the International Year of Family Farming gathers momentum. 
Learn more about the Forest and Farm Facility, listen to the FAO radio interview with Jeffrey Campbell, Manager of FAO’s Forest and Farm Facility, and view below related forest and farm publications:
Strength in numbers – 2013, FAO, International Institute for Environment and Development, Agricord, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland.

Recognizing mountain communities in sustainable development

The viability of mountain communities and ecosystems should be a key area of post-2015 development action, urged a coalition at UN-led talks in New York in January that included the FAO-hosted Mountain Partnership Secretariat. The threats posed by climate change and related adaptation needs call for mountains and mountain-derived benefits to be recognized in future sustainable development goals.

View the Mountain Partnership Secretariat news release
Listen to the UN radio interview with Thomas Hofer, Coordinator of the Mountain Partnership Secretariat, who explains why mountains and the people they support are a vital part of global ecosystems: EnglishFrench and Spanish.

FAO forest policy: scaling up capacity building 

Action by FAO Forestry to increase capacity in forest policy processes comes in many forms. A project in Azerbaijan helped to develop a National Forest Programme and forest legislation, while in Uganda a national workshop provided multifaceted training of facilitators and identified key stakeholders as well as the processes needed for their practical involvement in policy formulation and review. 
Learn about the latest developments at the webpage on FAO Forest Policy.

Unasylva reader survey

We believe that Unasylva plays an important role in articulating the ideas, practicalities and challenges of sustainable forest management, but we want to know what you think. You can tell us by participating in a short (5–10 minute) Web-based survey. We will use your responses to improve Unasylva and increase its impact in the development of effective forest policy and practice. Take the survey.

Global news

Great Green Wall: Partners united for greater coordinated action  

Robust multi-sector and -level partnerships, to enable local knowledge, capacities and action to drive implementation of the Great Green Wall for the Sahara & Sahel Initiative’s long-term policies and programmes, was the renewed call of an international forum in Rome. The African Union Commission will develop and lead a results-based framework to ensure proactive and integrated partner interventions.

Learn more about the International Forum organized by the Global Mechanism of the UNCCD and FAO under the auspices of the African Union Commission with the financial support of the European Union and read remarks by FAO’s Maria Helena Semedo and Eduardo Rojas Briales 

Green Week Berlin

The Berlin Agricultural Ministers’ Summit was a key opportunity to publicize FAO’s vision for eliminating hunger and food insecurity and how FAO’s strategic objectives were designed to help enable this. In her remarks, Maria Helena Semedo recalled the importance of the International Year of Family Farming as well as the centrality of climate change adaptation in ensuring sustainable agricultural systems.

Read the statement of Deputy Director-General (Natural Resources), Maria Helena Semedo

EU FAO FLEGT Programme calls for project proposals from non-VPA-engaged countries

The EU FAO FLEGT Programme has launched a global call for project proposals from government institutions, civil society and private-sector organizations in eligible timber-producing countries not already engaged in Voluntary Partnership Agreements in January 2014. Grants of up to Euro 100 000 will be available. View the EU FLEGT website for more information.

Upcoming meetings and events

Collaborative Partnership on Forestsevents calendar, including:

International Days

New publications and videos



International Day of Forests - 21 March 2014 

Forests and trees sustain and protect us, providing clean air and water, safeguarding biodiversity and acting as a buffer against climate change. For many people, they also offer food, shelter and employment. It is up to us in turn to sustain and protect our forests -- our future is at stake. Join FAO in celebrating the International Day of Forests on 21 March. 

View the International Day of Forests video in EnglishFrenchSpanish and Italian. Arabic, Chinese, German and Russian versions will be uploaded on the International Day of Forests website shortly.   

Unasylva: a stroll down memory lane

In this series, we feature extracts from early editions of Unasylva, FAO Forestry’s international journal of forestry and forest industries.

The contribution of forestry to food security 
Unasylva 160 1(41) 1990
"Food will last so long as forests do"... so runs an ancient Kashmiri adage (Ann poshi tele yeli poshi van--Sheik Nur-ud-Din Wali)
... In fact, farmers have long recognized the importance of trees. They almost invariably incorporate trees in production systems in areas where they have lived for an extended period of time (Sène, 1985; Hoskins, 1985; Niamir, 1989). Inquiry into current and past farming practices has clearly shown that rural people have a wealth of knowledge as to which trees make agricultural crops grow more successfully, which provide fodder during dry seasons, and which help to hold soils for more successful farming on sloping land, etc.
Trees and forests have a key role in improving food security
Farmers also plant or protect trees in order to provide direct benefits. Very often one of the most important of these is food (FAO 1988a, Weber and Hoskins, 1983). Sène (1985).This is not to say that forests and foresters can single-handedly resolve a problem whose roots lie in inequitable distribution of land, water, natural vegetation, etc. In fact, case-studies (FAO, 1988b) have shown that if larger policy issues remain unaddressed, forestry projects often fail to achieve goals related to food security and socio-economic improvements for local people.
Moreover, it is clear that forestry will never be (nor should be expected to be) the prime direct supplier of food in the majority of fanning and/or herding systems. However, the ongoing supportive role of trees and forests is of crucial importance in most production systems in the tropics; and their direct supplementary contribution is often significant, especially in situations of strong seasonal cycles of food availability and scarcity, and in areas where risks of crop destruction are high because of erratic climate or other factors  
Marilyn Hoskins, FAO Community Forestry Officer (1990)


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last updated:  Thursday, March 6, 2014