François-Xavier de Donnea: ‘The forests of the Congo Basin are threatened’

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Congo Basin

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Who is François-Xavier de Donnea?

Throughout his political career, François-Xavier de Donnea has held various positions. He has been a Member of Parliament, Minister, Mayor of Brussels and Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region. He was appointed Minister of State in 1998. He holds a doctorate in economics and is Professor Emeritus at the KU Leuven.

For the past ten years, much of his focus has been in Central Africa, including managing the Virunga and Garamba National Parks. His expertise in nature conservation in Africa, as well as his high-level political experience, made him the ideal choice for the position of Facilitator of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.

François-Xavier de Donnea

How was the Congo Basin Forest Partnership created?

The Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) was launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. It is a non-binding partnership, registered with the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. It was initiated by Colin Powell, former Secretary of State of the United States. The concern of the international community was to respond to the need to conserve and sustainably manage the forest ecosystems of Central Africa, which are an essential natural resource for present and future generations.

Who are the stakeholders in the Partnership? Are African governments willing to mobilise? How do you run an organisation like this one?

The Partnership brings together the 10 member countries (DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tomé and Principe) of the Central Africa Forest Commission (COMIFAC), agencies of donor countries, international organisations, NGOs, research institutions and the private sector. That makes 116 members! As such, the Partnership is much broader than COMIFAC, which only includes States.

The governments of the South call on all parties to unite around a political dialogue. In addition to experts (who say what needs to be done), they want high-level politicians to come together to discuss the modus operandi (how to do it) and mobilise the political will to take concrete actions. They are willing to mobilise.

The Partnership is well-organised and structured. It is made up of 7 colleges: the regional organisations involved and their Member States; civil society organisations in the Congo Basin; international NGOs; the private sector; donors; training and research institutions; and intergovernmental and multilateral organisations. Each college is autonomous and functions independently. The presidents of the colleges meet at the council meetings twice a year. And once a year, all 116 members meet.

How did you become a Facilitator? Do have a particular link with this region? What does the role involve?

Belgium is responsible for Facilitation for the period 2018-2019. When our country agreed to take over the role, the government asked me to take charge of it. I have been active in Central Africa for 10 years. I am the administrator for Virunga Park and I am the president of Garamba Park in north-eastern DRC. So I have experience in nature conservation in this part of the world.

The Facilitator is a representative of the donors, who facilitates contacts between partners, draws up a road map with our priorities and develops action programmes. I also organise thematic conferences on issues which are shared by some of our partners. For example, we have recently organised a conference in N'Djamena on the problem of the movements of armed groups in certain territories of Member States. In addition, the role of Facilitator allows me to create synergies with my duties in the national parks.

The international community is concerned about the forests of the Congo Basin. Why is it important to protect them?

Forests are very important in general. They are carbon sinks. The more forests there are, the less carbon there is in the atmosphere. As such, forests help mitigate the effects of climate change. Secondly, the forests of the Congo Basin contain a very rich biodiversity that is currently threatened. Poaching takes place on an industrial scale there! Poachers sometimes use weapons of war or helicopters. If we don't do anything, certain species will disappear. And yet, it is part of humanity's heritage and must be preserved. What would future generations think of our lack of action?

Moreover, biodiversity also has an economic benefit. It is one factor in attracting tourists. Parks which are rich in animal species employ a large number of skilled and unskilled people. Virunga Park is the largest employer in North Kivu.

Biodiversity is also plant-related. Precious wood must be used sustainably and good practices must be observed to enable the forest to renew itself. Unfortunately, these resources are often over-exploited. Within the Partnership, this is one of the concerns of the college for the private sector. Ethics and deontology need to be respected by forestry workers but also by the agri-food industry, which plants cocoa or palm trees to extract the oil. These crops must not encroach onto protected forests. Mining sites also need to comply with specific rules if they are located in forest areas. The same goes for any oil drilling, which can ruin natural areas for centuries. A pipeline that crosses a forest may be tapped, to divert the oil. A natural disaster is guaranteed if lakes of oil are formed.

What are the risks for this geographical zone?

The main threat is overpopulation. Population growth results in a greater need for growing and grazing areas, as well as more hunting and logging.

Next is corruption. Beyond the official discourse, which is generally reassuring, the behaviour of political or administrative leaders can be unorthodox, undermining the preservation of the forest and its biodiversity. It is not necessarily senior officials. It might be the village chief who receives a motorcycle and allows any trees in his jurisdiction to be cut down.

Poaching is a corollary of overpopulation, and remains widespread. The price of ivory and rhino horn remains very high, although it has fallen as a result of stricter enforcement of international regulations. Even if we tackle this trafficking effectively at the global level, there is always a black market that drives up prices. In China, there is a demand for ivory powder to add to soup, for its so-called medicinal properties!

Migration also poses a major problem. Climate change can push back the boundaries of certain forest areas which are becoming arid. As such, the fertile land of the Sahel is becoming scarce, prompting nomadic pastoralists to move further and further south. These pastoralists encroach onto the lands of settled farmers in the equatorial zone. They also tend to poach to supplement their incomes. And some of them even settle down permanently. This creates major tensions, notably in this area of northern DRC, Central Africa, Chad and Cameroon. In effect, it is a struggle for living space.

Do these forests only matter at the regional level, or is there broader interest? Can we compare them with the Amazon, which is the planet's green lungs?

The stakes are global. First, the indigenous peoples have a stake, finding legitimate sources of subsistence in forests. But these forests are also a global public good. They are important for all of humanity. The planet's green lungs are essentially the forests of the Amazon, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, which are also increasingly being plundered.

What are the solutions for countering the threats facing these forests?

We need to invest in development projects for peripheral communities in the areas that need to be protected. The poorer these communities are, the more they will exploit the forest and its resources in an unsustainable way.

The key to the solutions lies in the hands of the public authorities above all. International organisations can advise, but heads of state must be aware of their responsibilities. They must impose rules: the fight against poaching, the illegal exploitation of forests, etc. All levels of government are important. If the minister passes a law that the village chief does not enforce, it will not work.

To solve the problem of overpopulation, there are two solutions: economic development and education for girls. People must realise that preserving forests is more beneficial than destroying them. For example, around Virunga Park, there are hydroelectric power plants that provide citizens and businesses with access to electricity. Businesses can then grow and employ the population, which no longer needs to poach, cut down wood for charcoal or fish illegally.

The second solution is education for girls. They must go to school for as long as possible. The more educated they are, the later they get married and the fewer children they have. In addition, they play more of a role in economic development.

The Partnership organised a major conference in Brussels on 28 November. It led to the Brussels Declaration: what does this declaration contain?

The Brussels Declaration reaffirms several general principles that can serve as the basis for an action plan. The important aspect is that this declaration has been endorsed by the participants. The recommendations which it contains have a political dimension. Such declarations help build a collective awareness. The more people who are convinced, the more likely it is that measures will be taken at the political level. We know what needs to be done. But there needs to be the political will to make it happen.

Are you optimistic for the ​future of this region?

I am cautiously optimistic. We can still save a lot of the fauna and flora, but the clock is ticking. Specific acts of poor governance and corruption must stop. There is progress, but there are still too many illicit interests in trafficking in protected species, for example. The demographic pressure still remains difficult to manage. Populations should no longer live from predation in protected areas. Large countries such as China and India are developing, and need more and more wood. In some Gulf countries, there are people who want a cheetah, baby primate or panther as a pet. Demand for this kind of trafficking comes from everywhere. Keeping certain species in certain areas will become increasingly difficult. For example, elephants are becoming rarer in West and Central Africa. There were 20,000 of them in Garamba Park in 1960. Today there are only 1,250. 22,000 hippopotamuses were slaughtered on a massive scale in Virunga during the civil war in the late 1990s. Mountain gorillas have been protected, but there is trafficking in baby lowland gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. They are not slaughtered but captured, and end up in zoos, circuses or even in private homes.

The situation in southern Africa is more hopeful. But we shouldn't be under any illusions. We need to have the optimism of will and not the pessimism of insight if we want to make progress.

The forests of the Congo Basin in figures

  • 251 million hectares;
  • 2nd largest reserve of dense and humid forests in the world;
  • home to 3 species of great apes out of the 4 existing species (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans);
  • provide livelihoods for more than 60 million people in the surrounding area;
  • deforestation due to the expansion of agricultural land could result in a loss of 26 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2030, or 10% of the total forest cover;
  • Deforestation could lead to warming of between 2 and 4°C and a decrease in rainfall of between 5 and 10% over most of the region.