A Battle to Protect Forests Unfolds in Central Africa

Lucien Maka spotted a bees’ nest while gathering edible items from a community forest in the Central African Republic.Credit…Jack Losh

He darts over the shaded undergrowth and finds a cluster of mushrooms, deftly wrapping them in a bundle of leaves. His friend hacks apart a thick branch and gulps down the clean water stored within. They pocket several caterpillars — a local delicacy — and point upward to a bees’ nest swollen with honey, before slashing another tree’s bark to release soaplike sap and wash their hands.

For the outsider, the rain forests of the Central African Republic are an intimidating confusion of vines and towering trunks. For Mr. Maka, whose fellow Bayaka “pygmies” have lived here in the Congo Basin for millenniums by hunting and gathering, this lush wilderness is as convenient as a downtown deli.

“The forest has always provided everything we need,” says Mr. Maka, who is in his early 30s although unsure of his exact age.

But displacement, discrimination and a drawn-out war have put his homeland under pressure. He clambers over a felled tree, emerging in an area cleared by farmers for a cassava crop. “We used to gather food here,” he says. “We must go deeper into the forest.”

Fishermen pulling in their catch on the Mbaéré River, a tributary of the Lobaye River.
Fishermen pulling in their catch on the Mbaéré River, a tributary of the Lobaye River.Credit…Jack Losh

The plight of the world’s forests, which mitigate rising global temperatures by soaking up the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, came under the spotlight last year as blazes flared up across the Amazon and central Africa. Australia’s bush-fire crisis has further highlighted the urgent need to avert a warmer, drier climate.

Last week, a world away from these hot spots, hundreds of global leaders and business executives convened in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual conference. How to protect forests like Mr. Maka’s was on its environmental agenda.

The forum backs a group called the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, which brings together household names like Mars, Nestlé and Walmart alongside more than 100 other corporations, nonprofits and governments. It was founded to help an industry trade group, the Consumer Goods Forum, meet a commitment its members made 10 years ago to stop using ingredients that contribute to deforestation by 2020.

But most of the retail and manufacturing giants that make up the alliance have been unable to fully achieve the goal. “I don’t think a single one can say they’ve met their commitments 100 percent,” said Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020.

Since the pledge was made a decade ago, at least 50 million hectares of forest, or 123.5 million acres — an area twice the size of the United Kingdom — have been destroyed for commodities, according to an analysis by Greenpeace International.

Nestlé, which makes Cheerios, Kit Kat bars and Haagen-Dazs ice cream, says over 90 percent of its key agricultural commodities will be “deforestation-free” by the end of 2020. Mars, best known for its chocolate bars but also responsible for many other products, says commitments for cocoa, beef and soy will be met by 2025 and, for palm oil, by the end of this year.

Kellogg’s, the company behind Pringles chips and Crunchy Nut cereal, said that “like others, we will fall short of the deforestation goal.” While Walmart is “on track” to meet the goal in its own-brand products that use paper and palm oil, a spokeswoman said “soy and beef chains are more opaque and complex,” impeding “transparency and progress.” Other multinationals, like Mondelez, PepsiCo and Unilever did not respond to requests for figures or declined to supply them.

“I don’t think anybody, when they were making these commitments, envisaged it was going to be anything like as hard,” Mr. Adams added.

Deforestation in Southeast Asia is driven primarily by palm oil production and in South America, by beef and soy. The Congo Basin, home to the world’s second-largest rain forest, is being degraded mainly by industrial logging, small-scale agriculture and demand for wood fuel.

Some conservationists see protected wildlife areas as the solution, keeping out all human activity, including Indigenous communities. But others promote these local people and their intimate relationship to the forest as the key to ensuring the ecosystem’s survival.

Among the solutions, for some environmentalists, is the creation of “community forests.” In these arrangements, Indigenous people with a long history of living off the land work with industries and other resident populations to manage remote, rural areas. The strategy was credited in part when deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 70 percent between 2004 and 2012.

“There’s so much evidence now that Indigenous peoples manage their environment better than anyone else,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, a global Indigenous rights group.

Worldwide, Indigenous people live in forests that store almost 300 billion metric tons of carbon, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group — almost six times the total amount of carbon dioxide that burning fossil fuels, deforestation and other human impacts released into the atmosphere in 2018, the year of the United Nations’ last count. Protecting these areas, then, is crucial not only for safeguarding human rights but also for curbing global warming.

From the Amazon to the Himalayas, several thousand community forests have been set up around the world. But their success varies. Often they require a political balancing act that, on the one hand, meets the needs of disenfranchised Indigenous communities, and, on the other, wins over powerful elites and industrial, profit-driven companies keen to extract resources at minimal cost and hassle.

Such a challenge is at its thorniest in the Central African Republic, a landlocked country in the heart of the continent boasting large sections of rain forest and haltingly emerging from years of civil war.

But last year, despite opposition from some business and political interests, the country’s first community forest was created in its tropical, southwestern lowlands in the hope of reversing the area’s destruction while transforming the fortunes of the republic’s marginalized forest-dwellers and halting the annihilation of their ancient culture.

Local campaigners, with the backing of the Rainforest Foundation UK, an Indigenous-rights nonprofit, spent years lobbying for its creation and were spurred on by the proliferation of logging companies, encroaching farmland and wildlife reserves. These have all shrunk the size of land in which Bayaka can hunt and gather, denting their food supplies and forcing them into small, low-quality enclaves, often close to settled villages.

There, they often encounter disease and mistreatment by dominant Bantu groups who, often physically bigger and higher up in the Central African social hierarchy, sometimes use them as cheap, even slavelike, labor.

These challenges have forced the Bayaka to eke out their survival on the edge of society. “We feel totally abandoned by the government,” Mr. Maka said.

For countless generations, Central African communities have lived around the Lomba forest in the country’s south, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bayaka groups are among Africa’s oldest human populations, but many have lacked paperwork that would substantiate their claim to this contested land.

“They’ve been left as squatters on their own land,” said Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.

During years of advocacy and fieldwork, however, local campaigners from a charity called Maison de L’Enfant et de la Femme Pygmées, backed by the Rainforest Foundation UK, put an end to this. They helped Mr. Maka’s Bayaka community — as well as three forest-dependent Bantu villages nearby called Moloukou, Moale and Lokombe — create a detailed map of the territory in which they have traditionally lived, totaling 37,000 acres, almost the size of Staten Island.

The new data proves their customary ownership of the area, which can be used in courts and in other negotiations to stave off incursions from loggers and poachers.

While this was the first community forest to be set up in the Central African Republic, similar efforts have occurred in the Congo Basin since the mid-1990s, and there are now hundreds scattered across the region. Most are in neighboring Cameroon — the first country in the region to try them — although not all have been considered successful.

What made the Central African Republic’s first community forest special was its location within a commercial logging zone. Thissignaled a precedent for the region, where roughly 40 percent of the forest is covered by timber concessions. By giving dispossessed groups control of land inside a concession, it offers a road map to other Indigenous communities across the region. While wider problems with corruption still make enforcing laws hard, local ownership of forests promises greater accountability as decisions are made by a committee with the participation of the whole community.

“This decision is a very important first for the Congo Basin,” said Simon Counsell, who until recently led the Rainforest Foundation UK. “Such recognition of communities’ rights to their resources is a game changer.”

But the creation of community forests does not have to slam the brakes on economic growth. There are financial benefits, too, and these have caught the eyes of policymakers in the United States.

“If something doesn’t have a component in it that makes money for people, it’s not going to be very attractive,” said Dr. Diane Russell, a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development and its operations in Central and West Africa. “Community forestry is no panacea, but it can be a first step.”

Inhabitants are encouraged to explore alternatives to harvesting logs, putting together strategies that treat the land as a shared, long-term commodity. Non-timber products that can be gathered and traded include honey and “shade-grown” cocoa, an eco-friendly method of cultivation that improves soil fertility, provides wildlife habitats and sequesters greenhouse gases.

Moabi trees, which tower over the forest canopy, are valued by Bayaka people who extract cooking oil from their seeds for sale and domestic use, even as industrial logging has put this valued species under pressure and wiped them out in parts of Cameroon.

These economic projects can encourage collaboration between rival groups — in Moloukou’s case, Indigenous Bayaka and settled Bantu, known locally as Bilo. Villagers cooperate to export produce, pooling the proceeds and financing local education initiatives. Local patrols are organized to monitor poachers, helping preserve biodiversity to encourage an ecotourism trade.

For decades, U.S.A.I.D. has supported community forestry across the Congo Basin and farther afield in Liberia to the west, Zambia to the south and Malawi to the southeast. The agency promotes the transformation of subsistence activities into sustainable, moneymaking initiatives and views these forests as a means to reduce rural poverty and empower local communities.

U.S.A.I.D. said that over a five-year period between 2015 and 2019, it invested more than $23.7 million in community forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Zambia, and in West Africa. This represents an average of $4.7 million per year, slightly more than the $3.3 million that the agency will spend on managing and creating them in 2020.

Timber companies are the largest private employer in the Central African Republic, controlling around 80 percent of the southwestern rain forests and powering around a tenth of the economy. In an impoverished country where logging is the only formal, large-scale enterprise to have survived the protracted civil war, and where people on average earn less than $800 per year the allure and value of steady employment cannot be underestimated.

But while timber’s promise of quick profits tantalize, few benefits trickle down to forest communities. A report last year by the Rainforest Foundation UK revealed that, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the total tax bill for all industrial loggers amounted to a paltry $0.03 per capita.

The region’s governments are unlikely to kick out these companies anytime soon. But by setting up community forests inside logging zones — two entities long seen as incompatible — local inhabitants can band together into a meaningful constituency and, in the long run, improve their political standing and access to government funds. Nepal is a case in point. Such empowerment played out there two years ago when around 2,000 members of the country’s community forests — many of them women — won seats during important local elections, giving them more clout in policy decisions.

On the ground, a driving force behind the Central African Republic’s first community forest is Bienvenu Kemanda, a local consultant for the Rainforest Foundation UK who formerly led Maison de L’Enfant et de la Femme Pygmées.

In late 2016, Mr. Kemanda started pushing for Moloukou’s community forest and spent months in the area, consulting with its inhabitants and trekking around their territory to plot its borders by GPS. Surveys of wildlife and tree species established what resources were left for locals who live by foraging plants and hunting bush meat, a crucial source of protein. Last April, following his team’s endeavors, the Central African Republic’s government finally passed a law creating the community forest.

But last month, word reached Mr. Kemanda’s colleagues that the government had changed course.

Fearing its impact on operations, the country’s influential pro-logging lobby had long opposed the community forest, which was located within a valuable timber concession, and had worked to overturn its creation.

On June 3, the director of the Forest Resources Sustainable Management Agency — a state body backed by France’s equivalent of U.S.A.I.D. — wrote to the government minister in the capital, Bangui, overseeing the community forest and insisted that it had “no legal validity.” The solution, said the director, Bertin Ngouyombo, was to annul the original decree that had created the community forest.

By the end of 2019, the country’s first and only community forest would no longer exist.

In response to the disheartening development, Mr. Kemanda and his fellow campaigners are working on a vigorous campaign to reinstate the community forest, publicizing the ruling in local media and advocating behind the scenes. If necessary, they say, they will take their fight to the courts.

The evening before Mr. Ngouyombo sent his fateful letter, dozens of Bayaka men, women and children had gathered in a sandy clearing on the edge of Moloukou for a night of music and dance. Hypnotic and haunting, punctuated by cries that seem part bird song and part yodel, their ancient polyphonic chorus has changed little over 30,000 years but could be silenced by intensifying pressures.

As the sun dropped behind the forest canopy, the musicians arrived, wielding plastic jerrycans rather than drums carved from trees — sobering evidence of a chronic cultural erosion. But allowing nothing to spoil the night’s communal festivities, they launched into a percussive, trancelike beat.

In a swirl of ululations, mothers with infants strapped to their backs danced around the drummers. Husbands and young sons clapped intricate rhythms, jumping in unison and bellowing joyous basslines. Darkness fell, and the ember of an endangered culture glimmered into the night.

Photographs and Text by Jack Losh

Source: NYT > Business


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