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The East African

Quick Benefits Can't Justify Cutting Down Forests

Wangari Maathai

Conserving the Congo forest, and indeed all of our forests in Africa, as well as accelerating forestation efforts, is vital to our survival on a continent where the Sahara Desert is expanding to the North and the Kalahari Desert is expanding to the Southwest.

For this reason the Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF) was launched in London on June 17. The initial financing of the CBFF comes from a pair of $200 million grants from the governments of the United Kingdom and Norway.

Ten countries in the Central African region established the Congo Basin Forest Initiative to manage the forest more sustainably and conserve its rich biodiversity. The Congo Basin Forest is the world's second largest forest ecosystem and is considered the planet's second lung, after the Amazon. The forests of the Congo Basin provide food, shelter, and livelihood for over 50 million people.

Covering 200 million hectares and including approximately one-fifth of the world's remaining closed-canopy tropical forest, they are also a very significant carbon store with a vital role in regulating the regional climate. The diversity they harbour is of global importance.

Spanning an area twice the size of France, the Congo Basin rainforest is home to more than 10,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds, and 400 species of mammals.

Today, the Congo Basin rainforest is coming under pressure. Increased logging, changing patterns of agriculture, population growth, and the oil and mining industries are all leading to ever greater deforestation.

This situation is not sustainable for the people who live there, for the countless species that may be driven to extinction, or for the climate. Reversing the rate of deforestation in the Congo Basin is therefore essential both to securing the livelihoods of the people in the region and to maintaining the carbon-storage capacity and biodiversity of the forest.

Forests are indispensable yet we take them for granted. Though they appear inexhaustible, they can perish. The two nations who share the island of Hispaniola -- Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- provide a vivid example of what happens when we destroy our environment, and especially forests.

The deforestation of Haiti and the subsequent loss of its soil made the country vulnerable to devastation by hurricanes and deepened its poverty and misery. Conditions in the Dominican Republic, which largely retains its forests, are significantly better than the other side of the island.

Sadly, the generations that destroy the environment are often not the ones that feel the consequences. It is the following generations who suffer.

While it is important to protect forests in our individual countries, it is also important to recognise the special value of forests that lie elsewhere, like the Congo Basin forest ecosystem. The negative impact of destructive activities in the Congo forest will be felt in countries both within and outside Africa.

What Africa needs is not only to protect its indigenous forests, but also to engage in massive forestation efforts. It is possible for our people to grow the commercial plantations needed by the timber and building industries. But it is wrong to sacrifice forests to generate quick economic benefits from expansive commercial tree farms.

When we do that, we undermine the capacity of our children and grandchildren to get water and reliable rainfall for agriculture. They may also not be able to generate hydropower and enjoy the many other uses of water because rivers may dry up. Africa is already considered a water-scarce continent. It cannot afford to sacrifice its watersheds.

Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate and Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Forest, is founder of the Green Belt Movement.

Copyright © 2005, Nation Media Group Ltd.

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