The Joint Declaration of Intent on REDD+ in the Congo Basin between Central African and Donor Countries: making history, déjà vu, and which way forward ?

Op-ed by Ngembeni Wa Namasso, special to

The Declaration on REDD+ expected as part of ongoing climate talks in Durban, South Africa, by the Central Africa Commission on Forests (COMIFAC) and some donor countries, was released, Wednesday, December 07, 2011.

To many observers this declaration is a ritual and therefore, expected after every meeting by ‘high-level’ decision-makers on forests from that part of the World. However, closer examination would reveal evidence of donor inertia; three tendencies – the forward, the going-it-alone and the going-along; some cracks appearing in the commission, and some face-saving gestures made.

Firstly, there is good news! The Congo Basin remains strongly committed to forest management; yet, it is a zone experiencing low investment in the forestry sector, insufficient flexibility in REDD+ readiness and weak integration of the forestry sector with growing pressures for land from international investors. The bad news is however that, moving towards a genuine and tangible consensus for REDD+ in the Congo Basin will require much more than intentions and declarations.

Firstly, the prominence of ‘intent’ in the title of the declaration is telling. From the region’s recent history on REDD+ since Bali in 2007, through COP16 2010 Cancun, Mexico, to the grand standing of the “Summit of 3 Tropical Forest Basins of the World” held in Brazzaville, May/June 2011, rounding-off 2011 with a declaration of intent seems a bit lame. Few can see COMIFAC, led by the vigorous doyen of Central African forestry, architect of the Brazzaville summit; H.E. Henri Djombo of the Republic of Congo, settling for a declaration of ‘intent! A declaration with ‘intent’ as the highest water mark is covered by the fingerprints of donor inertia.

For observers of the REDD+ process in the Congo Basin, COMIFAC countries exhibit three types of attitude vis-à-vis REDD+ readiness. Type 1 – are the forward countries with high forest/people ratio, weak road infrastructure and prospects for immediate foreign investments. Type 1 countries generally expect substantial windfalls from rapid REDD+. The republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo fall into this first category. Type 2 – are countries going-it-one, somewhat trending away from the REDD+ option as currently structured. They have a strong natural resources base, higher prospects for foreign investments. They also have a high forest/people ratio and a strongly independent, even nationalist character. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea fall in this Category. Type 3 – are countries going-along, fearing negative reciprocity if they don’t. These countries have enjoyed historic forestry leadership and have made investments in COMIFAC. Some have perhaps dwindling forests; they enjoy better road infrastructure and therefore relatively lower cost of foreign investments. Cameroon falls under this category. With shaky commitment to REDD+ Types 2 & 3 are actively espousing greater creativity and flexibility in REDD+ options. Type 1 countries on the other hand seem impatient for a faster REDD+ mechanism.

These apparent cracks in the COMIFAC facade are also demonstrated by the number of State flags not appended to the declaration. Of the ten (10) members of COMIFAC, the Flags of Sao Tome & Principe, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are not included. This casts a shadow on the traditional togetherness of ‘COMIFAC’. Of the seven whose flags are appended, Chad, though proud of its parklands is not a typical forest country. The Central Africa Republic boasts modest amounts of tropical forests. Still the bulk of Chad is non forest. Rwanda and Burundi are both countries with relatively high population densities, Montaigne woodlands and small surface areas.

If the pre-Cancun/COP16, Brazzaville summit of May/June 2011 is anything to go by, it seems this declaration has been pushed by H.E. Henry Djombo, Minister of Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment of the Republic of Congo, and doyen of Central Africa Forestry Ministries. Some pundits would make light of this longevity, expecting rivalry, between the two Congos. After all, the DRC has more than 60% of the region’s forests. However, it may be precisely because of DRC’s forests and H.E. Henri Djombo’s longevity that, leadership advances by DRC’s H.E. Edouado Endundu, would clearly be overkill. With a below par Brazzaville summit on ‘3 forest Basins’, it seems quite plausible that this Durban Declaration is a success for H.E. Henry Djombo and a grace – saving act for COMIFAC.

In keeping with the spirit of the declaration however, a number of concrete steps must be taken.

In the coming years the COMIFAC region must explore a number of concrete sustainable forest management solutions. For decades forest governance has been talked about as if it belonged in another era, and little done to build capacity so citizen actors can be incentivized to take greater part in managing forests. With possible incentive mechanisms on the horizon the technical requirements for managing forest carbon seem clear and so are sustainable benefits from forests. It is now also clear that forests must be made more valuable standing, than converted. Investments in forests should lead directly to stronger local and national capacity to manage and market diverse products and services from natural forests without destroying them. Proxy – or less than direct strategies for managing natural forests have not succeeded.

Approaches to REDD+ must become more creative and longer term. Sub national options for marketing carbon under specific national circumstances should be looked at on case by case, country-by-country bases more carefully. More of the same medicine, for all countries is clearly not working and some countries are choosing other options and going-it-alone or just going-along for reasons other than sustainable forest management. The use of donor funds to support REDD+ should be directed towards investments in keeping forests, natural by moving to a higher level of valorization of products and services from natural forests.

The use of the term ‘Country’ in international forest policy communications needs to be clearly unpacked to mean not national governments or their representatives exclusively, but all the citizens in the COMIFAC countries – each according to their skills, interest and resources, and including state agents. Such distinction is now necessary as more citizens have or are acquiring needed knowledge and skills and want to become involved; to work as partners with foreign collaborators and their governments. Citizens no longer want to be ‘convened’ by Government or foreign experts as has been the status quo. Arguably, State forestry agents in COMIFAC countries are currently over-saturated with responsibilities, while sectors like national research, institutions of higher learning, nongovernmental organizations and ordinary entrepreneurs can often be without business, without funds and resources with which to support the forestry sector. Diversification of support to all these sectors is the way to go for forest and climate work in the Congo Basin.

Finally, COMIFAC countries must clearly demonstrate awareness of how global demands for agricultural lands are being taken on-board in current forest and climate change mitigation work. The only way skills can be developed, focus maintained on competing land and forest uses; make citizens into actors, take-on their livelihoods concerns, their fears and interests, is to enlarge the forest and climate process and to support a truly national consensus; one that is measurable, verifiable and reportable.

Author: Mongabay

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