04 February 2005

Save our forests, plead African leaders

Patrolling in a wooden boat between the thickly forested banks of the broad Sangha River, the four "eco-guards" have something to show for their efforts to tackle poaching in this swathe of Central Africa.

One holds up the black and brown fur skin of a sitatunga, a type of antelope, seized from a poachers' forest camp. But Alfred Voumia, another of the green-uniformed group of guards, says poaching is less common these days.

"It's declined because of our presence," he says.

The Cameroonian and Congolese forest guards launched joint patrols in this border area in 2000 as part of a broader drive by regional leaders to protect the Congo Basin, the world's second biggest tropical forest region after the Amazon.

Heads of state from central Africa meet at the weekend in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo Republic, to review progress since they last convened in Cameroon in 1999 and pledged to take action to save their forests.

Activists expect them to pledge to intensify their efforts, and with French President Jacques Chirac also attending, they hope too that the West will provide much of the funding.

Stretching across 190 million hectares and six states, the Congo Basin forests are home to half the continent's wild animals - including gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants - as well as more than 10 000 plant species.

But if deforestation goes on at its present pace, about 70 percent of the forests may be gone by 2040, global conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says.

"Attempts to save the forests of the Congo Basin will only succeed if adequate funding is secured to back up strong political decisions," WWF director-general Claude Martin said.

A chunk of south-eastern Cameroon, with bumpy roads of red earth cutting through its forests, has been a testing ground for many initiatives since leaders first pledged to protect the Congo Basin in 1999 and may be a pointer for future schemes.

The WWF-led Jengi project - named after the word local Baka pygmies use for the spirit of the forest - has divided the area into zones, including three national parks. Local people and others can exercise limited hunting rights in other zones.

Judges have taken a much harder line with poachers, WWF has worked with logging firms on more durable forest management and officials have encouraged local people to use other sources of food in the forest such as fruit and fish rather than bushmeat.

The government of Cameroon - often ranked among the world's most corrupt states - has got better at passing on revenue from logging and hunting rights to affected communities. Local councils are meant to get 40 percent and villages 10 percent.

The funds have paid for scholarships, wells and health education. But watchdog groups say much of the money has gone astray and local people, including the Baka who live deep in the forest, often complain they have not seen many benefits.

"Nothing has been done with the 10 percent," said local man Moise Mporo, standing near a sawmill close to the village of Ndeng.

The joint patrols along the Sangha, the majestic river which borders Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo, may have cut poaching of animals such as antelopes and small monkeys, but the guards say they need more equipment.

"We only have one engine and sometimes it breaks down," said Voumia, 26, the guard standing on his boat.

While the Congolese have rifles, their Cameroonian counterparts have only tear gas pistols to take on the poachers.

"They are armed and we are just as you see us," Voumia said, holding up his empty hands.


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