The sixth annual One Planet Summit began on Wednesday, with the fate of forests at the top of the agenda. Politicians, scientists and NGOs met in Libreville, Gabon, to discuss the future of rainforests in the Congo basin, Southeast Asia and the Amazon basin. This year’s conference has been named the "One Forest Summit" to reflect this focus.
“The decision to hold this summit in the Congo basin is significant because Central Africa’s tropical forest is one of the main carbon sinks on the planet,” says Alain Karsenty, forest economist and researcher at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and a Central Africa specialist.
The tropical rainforest, which spans Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, currently stores stocks of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent to 10 years’ worth of global emissions.
“Forests in Southeast Asia now emit more CO2 than they absorb due to deforestation,” Karsenty says. “In the Amazon, studies show that we are reaching a tipping point. The only place where forests are definitely still absorbing more CO2 than they emit is in Central Africa.”
In the Amazon, thousands of trees have been razed to make space for soy farms and pasture for livestock, and in Indonesia palm oil production has led to millions of hectares of deforestation.
But Central Africa’s rainforests have been largely – if not entirely – spared.
“Deforestation began in 2010, spurred by the pressure of a growing population. It was linked to slash-and-burn agriculture, which many farmers depend on, and the use of charcoal,” Karsenty says.
Levels of such “poverty deforestation” vary from country to country in the Congo basin. DRC was home to 40% of global deforestation in 2021, second only to Brazil.
But Gabon, which has a significantly smaller population than its neighbour, is a low deforestation country. “And Gabon has gradually emerged as the model student in the region,” Karsenty says. The country is called “Africa’s Last Eden” due to more than 85% of its territory being covered by rainforest.
For decades the country profited from the underground petrol resources fueling its economy. But in 2010 it began a transition towards diversification through timber production and palm oil plantations. The objective was to balance the country’s economic needs and its response to the climate emergency.
The initiative was led by the Gabonese-British minister of water, forests, seas and the environment, Lee White, who offered foreign furniture companies and plywood manufacturers financial breaks on the condition that they set up factories in Gabon while simultaneously banning the export of logs and unprocessed wood.
Strict laws against using the forest for industry were also implemented, meaning manufacturers could only cut down a maximum of two trees per hectare, every 25 years. To deter illegal felling, logs were marked with barcodes so that they could be tracked, “which created jobs, helped the economy to flourish and limited deforestation”, Karsenty says.
As a final measure, Gabon inaugurated 13 national parks covering 11% of its land mass and installed a satellite-based surveillance system to monitor deforestation.
these environmental protection measures appear to have worked. Gabon’s forest area is increasing and illegal wood felling has decreased slightly. The number of elephants in Gabon’s forests has gone up from 60,000 in 1990 to 95,000 in 2021.
There have also been economic gains. Gabon has become one of Africa’s – and the world’s – biggest producers of plywood. In total, the timber industry provides some 30,000 jobs and 7% of the country’s labour force.
“Thanks to these political decisions, Gabon today is a regional leader on environmental issues,” says Karsenty. ”Several other countries in the Congo basin have said they want to implement measures inspired by Gabon. For example, Republic of the Congo and DRC also want to ban log exports and create free-trade zones to attract investors.”
“Since 2010, DRC has also introduced several measures aiming to save the forest, notably policies to settle nomadic populations,” Karsenty says.
The country’s indigenous peoples live in nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, and are reliant on the forest for resources, yet efforts to settle them have had limited success in a country subject to political corruption, instability and armed conflict.
“There’s a real regional rivalry to appear internationally as a leader in forest protection,” Karsenty says. “And the main reason behind this race for leadership is seeking out financing from countries in the Global North.”
In 2019, Norway agreed to transfer $150 million to Gabon over a 10-year period to support its environmental policies. Although Norway has acted as a “benefactor” for tropical forests for some years, this marked the first time it had offered financial aid to a country located outside the Amazon basin or Indonesia. A year and a half later, Gabon received the first payment – $17 million in exchange for tonnes of CO2 stored, thanks to measures to halt deforestation.
During COP26, DRC was also promised a landmark $500 million from the international community to protect its forests. “Internationally, the DRC has been asking for years that the country be automatically remunerated for resources the forest would have provided based on some sort of ‘annuity’ rationale,” Karsenty says. “The argument is that by preserving their forests, countries are deprived of income, notably from underground [resources], and that should be compensated.”
However, the funds have yet to materialise and the country seems to be trying a new approach. In July 2022, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi announced his intention to auction off the land for oil drilling, some of which are located in the heart of the rainforest, home to the world’s largest tropical peat bogs. With the capacity to produce up to 1 million barrels of oil per day, the country could generate revenue of $32 million per year, DRC’s minister of hydrocarbons has said.
Peat bogs are highly effective natural carbon sinks and damaging them would release enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Karsenty says, “We need to go beyond these arguments and beyond rivalries, to put in place a communal agenda from countries in the Congo basin, achieve regional cooperation and preserve this tropical forest.”