Congo's poor need incentives to save giant forest

GEMENA, Democratic Republic of the Congo Tue May 31, 2011 4:05pm EDT

An aerial view of Garamba forest in Haute Uele region of northeastern Congo February 21, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly/Files

An aerial view of Garamba forest in Haute Uele region of northeastern Congo February 21, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly/Files

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GEMENA, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Reuters) - Simon Kasagana knows his meager livelihood depends on the forest, but like many others eking out a living in the vast Congo basin, he has little choice but to destroy it.

He used to be a nursing assistant, but the pay was too low to live off, so he began cutting trees for a local businessman, who pays him in planks. He sells them, making around $13 a week.

But as the forest slowly disappears under pressure from logging, charcoal burning and encroachment by subsistence farmers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's remote Equateur province, Kasagana is having to travel increasingly far from villages along dirt roads to find wood.

"We are not happy. We know that our children will have a difficult life, because there will be no forest left," the 38-year-old said, standing against a backdrop of the farmland and scrub that are fast replacing Congo's lush forests.

Environmental experts from 35 countries were meeting in the Congo Republic, DRC's smaller neighbor, on Tuesday for a week-long summit seeking ways to protect the world's three largest rainforests -- the Amazon in South America, the Congo in Central Africa and the Borneo-Mekong in Indonesia.

The outcome of the summit could play a role in the preservation of some 80 percent of the world's remaining tropical forest, seen by experts as key to offsetting rising global emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

But any such effort will have to offer poor residents of forest areas like Kasagana a reason to stop felling trees. Deforestation causes roughly a fifth of global emissions.

Congo Republic announced on Tuesday a plan to replant trees on 1 million hectares of land by 2020. The Congo Basin covers more than 200 million hectares, spanning six countries, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

"USED TO BE FOREST"

Surveying an area that was once covered in virgin rainforest, Felicien Topwa from the Congolese conservation charity Natural Resources Network said farming and logging for local construction have taken a toll.

"It used to be forest, now it's just savannah, it's possible that this whole area will (soon) be without trees," he said.

Despite a moratorium on new forestry contracts in place since 2002, logging, much of it illegal, continues apace.

Topwa said there were plans for reforestation and talks with logging companies and the government about how they can help local communities, but no action had yet been taken.

Rich countries have pledged billions of dollars under the scheme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which effectively pays developing countries not to cut their forests down.

But developing countries complain that, apart from a deal with Norway and Indonesia worth $1 billion to halt licenses for clearing Borneo's forests, funds have been slow to trickle out.

"You can't ask DRC to maintain its forests, to be engaged in international policy for conservation and biodiversity, and at the same time take away the funding for protecting forests," DRC's environment minister Jose Endundo told Reuters.

But when pressed on what he would do with that money, he offered few details of conservation programs.

The REDD scheme may not work if the cash is not invested wisely in projects that give communities an incentive to save forests.

In a report on Sunday, U.S. scientists said efficient cookstoves and better crop seeds could curb the practice of clearing trees for charcoal burning and farming.

(Additional reporting by Christian Tsoumou; Editing by Tim Cocks and Alistair Lyon)

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