Congo Basin: Don't destroy the world's second lung in the name of growth

Tuesday December 06 2016

The majestic Congo Forest Basin, the world’s “second lung,” a carbon sink rich in biodiversity, is different things to different people. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The majestic Congo Forest Basin, the world’s “second lung,” a carbon sink rich in biodiversity, is different things to different people.

To an extraction firm, it beckons with more than 20 per cent of all global mineral reserves. To a conservationist, it is an ecologically diverse asset comprising 10 per cent of the earth’s land. Other stakeholder interests in the basin include infrastructure, logging, mining, agriculture and human settlements.

The exploitation of its timber, oil, natural gas and rainforests is intensifying, and that means new infrastructure in the form of roads and rail lines is opening up areas that were once difficult to traverse and putting increasing pressure on animal and plant populations.

Although these are new and important opportunities for economic growth and an improved standard of living for the people of the Congo Basin, it is necessary to also ask what this means to the basin’s natural resources and their value for future generations. 

There is this narrative about how good for development exploitation of natural resources is and how it is all growth-oriented. But growth and development are not the same things: When something grows it gets bigger, when something develops it becomes different. Not all growth is development and not all growth leads to development.

Food and water security are ultimately impacted by how we manage our forests, combat climate change and cultivate our lands. The health of our bodies is tied to the health of the air we breathe, the soil in which we grow our food, and the water we consume. History, too, has shown that the progress toward democracy can be upended when natural resources become scarce or compromised.   


The European Union, the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom among other development partners, have contributed more than $320 million to the Basin’s protected areas through major regional programmes like Conservation and Rational Use of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa (ECOFAC), Central Africa Regional Programme for the Environment (CARPE) and the Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).

However, in spite of such colossal investments, governance systems are still weak; as a continent, we have not been alive to the fact that 90 per cent of Africans in the Congo Basin survive on natural resources, as every day, we act contrary to that reality.

The Congo Basin forests provide critical water catchment services to Africa. A third of the 100 largest cities in the world, Kinshasa, Libreville and Kigali included, depend on protected forest areas for their water supply.

For local communities who practise subsistence agriculture, the forests ensure their food security and support their livelihood needs. As we witness other continents suffering air quality issues from rapid development, Africans can rely on the Congo Basin, which acts as the world’s “second lung” after the Amazon.

Our generation’s challenge is confronting the reality of climate change and charting our uniquely Africa development trajectory. This requires involvement of every stakeholder: Communities, private and public sector organisations as well as governments.

Governance disconnect has been a major constraint on African development; there is a need to ensure that rights and responsibilities are clarified so that benefits derived from our land and forests are equitably distributed and that the continent’s institutions and policies are forward-looking and equipped to respond to global changes.

As a region, forging regional partnerships to acquire a greater voice in global forums and benefit from economies of scale is critical. We must ensure that the Congo Basin’s rich natural resources benefit the whole population and contribute to lasting development and poverty reduction. 

We must take an integrated approach towards a continent whose policies – foreign, development, security, environment, trade and industry – are mutually reinforcing.

The progress made in Africa in recent years provides real opportunities for broader co-operation with African countries in all these areas.

The African Union-led Agenda 2063, the Africa We Want clearly states, “We aspire that by 2063, Africa shall be a prosperous continent, with the means and resources to drive its own development, with sustainable and long-term stewardship of its resources and that its unique natural endowments, its environment and ecosystems, including its wildlife and wild lands, are healthy, valued and protected, with climate resilient economies and communities”. 

There is a need for a paradigm shift in how Africa perceives, manages and benefits from its natural resource assets. The adoption of the Africa Agenda 2063 by the African Union presents the means and golden opportunity to achieve this shift.

As individual countries are less likely to successfully operate this shift, regional integration – like the Congo Basin partnership – is a prerequisite for Africa to govern and optimise benefits from its natural resource assets.

The Congo Basin Forest Partnership provides a valuable platform for diverse groups to come together and bring wider knowledge and experience to the Basin’s conservation practices. We are the authors of our fate, and we are in a unique position to write a new kind of success story. A future that uplifts all Africans is within our reach, but only if we act boldly, decisively and with the utmost urgency.

Kaddu Sebunya is president of the African Wildlife Foundation. This is an abridged version of his keynote speech at the 16th Meeting of Parties of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership held in Kigali last week.