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EIA Leads Discussions on Illegal Commodity-Driven Forest Conversion in Congo Basin

By Eric Parfait Essomba, EIA Congo Basin Campaigner

This past June, more than 600 stakeholders met in Yaoundé, Cameroon as part of the 15th Meeting of Parties of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP). The CBFP is a multi-stakeholder partnership that was launched in 2002 during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa by former U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The partnership includes Congo Basin countries, donor agencies and governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics, and private sector companies working together to coordinate efforts to protect and conserve forest resources in the Congo Basin. Members of the CBFP meet every two years to coordinate priority activities, to propose action on emerging issues, and to share information with partners and networks active in the region. Developed countries have led and facilitated meetings of the partnership, such as the United States, France, Germany, and Canada.

Leveraging on the potential of CBFP meetings to bring together a diversity of stakeholders from the Congo Basin region, EIA organized a side event aimed at raising awareness and catalyzing the dialogue amongst stakeholders about the increasing commodity-driven illegal forest conversion in the region. The forest of the Congo Basin is the second largest tropical rainforest on earth and commonly called “the lungs of Africa.” This incredibly biodiverse forest ecosystem provides food, fresh water, shelter and medicine for millions of people, and is home to many critically endangered species including forest elephants, gorillas, and bonobos. Unfortunately in the last decade, the Congo Basin has experienced an unprecedented growing demand for land to develop large scale commodity plantations, particularly high-value crops such as palm oil. This demand is continuing today at a rapid rate. It is reported that nearly two million hectares of land investment deals have been signed in Central Africa over the last ten years. A recent study suggests that a substantial proportion of the land allocated for large-scale agriculture production in the region, particularly for palm oil, is being illegally deforested. On top of this, the ongoing forest conversion is exacerbating regional deforestation rates at record levels and is highly correlated with land rights abuses and a range of other social impacts.

EIA Congo Basin Campaigner, Eric Parfait Essomba facilitated the side event during which three case studies were presented on Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo, where significant land conversion is currently underway. Civil society panelists from each of the three case study countries stressed on the various issues that are driving illegal forest conversion. Cross-cutting issues that were highlighted included the absence of an inter-ministerial coordination during the land allocation process, absence of clear procedures for land allocation, the lack of national land-use planning, and often conflicting legal texts on natural resource management.

Following the discussion, demand-side policies and measures such as the U.S. Lacey Act, and the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) were also presented to highlight the unique abilities to stem the flow of commodity-driven illegal timber into environmentally and politically “sensitive” consuming markets such as the United States and Europe. The fact that in many cases the so-called “conversion timber” is ultimately being sold into these markets, creates potential technical and political opportunities for leveraging credible legal compliance in land conversion. However, these opportunities are not to be considered as a long-term substitute to adequate national legislation, which are in some cases the most relevant tools to address the negative threats posed by forest conversion on local communities and indigenous people.

An overall successful event, the side event concluded with the following key recommendations which were later presented during the plenary session of the CBFP talks:
- Inter-ministerial committees should be established at the national level to support better land-use planning;
- Coherent land-use planning including all sectors should be developed at the national level but also taking into account community land claims;
- National legal frameworks should be strengthened for land allocation and conversion in the region.

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