Congo villagers look to Copenhagen to save forest

MANGA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - As world leaders haggle over a plan to fight global warming, tribes in Congo’s rainforest have armed themselves with satellite GPS devices in the hope of coming out winners from any deal.

Their goal is simple: by creating an ecological inventory of their ancestral home, the tribes hope the world’s second largest rainforest will be ringfenced as a weapon to combat climate change and so be spared from commercial loggers.

“If the forest is poorly managed, we won’t get anything,” said local green activist Dieudonne Nzabi.

“But if it is well managed, we will get more money than from commercial logging,” he said, explaining the painstaking efforts of eight villagers this month to log exact coordinates of forest resources from cassava fields to freshwater springs.

While an overall deal from the climate summit in Copenhagen looked elusive on Thursday, a U.N.-backed deal to reward local communities for protecting their forests could yet emerge.

The official chairing negotiations on the so-called REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) scheme said on Wednesday a draft deal was “more or less agreed.”

Second in size only to the Amazon rainforest, the 2.2 million square kilometer Congo forest stretches over five Central African nations. Under the REDD scheme, it could provide those countries with a lucrative new revenue stream as long as they can prove they are preserving it properly.


Yet Congo -- which was told by the International Monetary Fund only this week its external debt had reached unsustainable levels -- must still weigh any such windfall against the lure of revenues and employment from the logging sector.

“In a country where formal employment is very rare, you cannot decide to shut down the forestry sector overnight as it employs 30,000 to 40,000 employees,” Congolese Environment Minister Jose Endundo said.

“The forest will not be preserved by keeping the people in poverty ... We want justice,” he told reporters before heading to Copenhagen, saying he would demand “several billion dollars” in international aid over 20 years to help combat deforestation.

For the villagers of Manga and many of the other 100 communities across the Congo basin that have also started mapping their resources, the timing is crucial.

The Congolese government is due early next year to start handing out logging permits which ecology groups fear could actually speed the existing deforestation.

The villagers hope they will be able to use their maps to negotiate with the government and logging companies to agree on exclusion zones and social investment projects.

Some forest communities may even obtain forestry concessions and make money by selling carbon offsets that rich nations would buy to meet mandatory emissions reduction obligations at home.

Villagers insist this is not about them becoming rich -- but about protecting a livelihood that is already threatened by logging started before the existing moratorium on new permits and what they say is evidence of illegal logging.

“We must go further and further (for food),” said a farmer and hunter called Lobota. “The animals have gone away.”

Additional reporting by Joe Bavier and Hakon Mosbech; writing by Mark John