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Africa looks to vast forests for carbon credits

Efforts to combat illegal logging are making gains, but agriculture looms as another threat.

July 27, 2010

Reporting from Banco, Ivory Coast — By Tim Cocks, Reuters

They inhabit a polluted part of Ivory Coast's main city with few jobs and a swelling population, but residents of Abidjan's slums have a rare respite: a stretch of pristine rainforest.

From their wooden shacks and unpainted concrete houses beside motorways on the edge of Banco National Park, the millions who live in north Abidjan need no lesson on its worth.

"This forest is a great thing," textile worker Sebastien Coulibaly, 35, said of the sky-scraping green mass of vines and broccoli-shaped trees.

"It helps us to breathe better; we live at ease because of it. Sometimes we walk our children there. We must protect it, because our planet will be nothing without forests."

Logging, farming and armed conflict still threaten Africa's jungles, which include the Congo Basin, the world's second largest after the Amazon. But analysts are hopeful.

A new global study released this month by London's Chatham House think-tank found that since 2002 illegal logging had decreased by about 50% in Cameroon, once one of the biggest sources of illicit timber, a decline of twice the global average.

The European Union this year signed deals with Ghana, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo to tighten restrictions on logging. An EU ban on illegally harvested timber was passed this month and is to take effect in 2012.

"We've dared to sanction firms, from withdrawing permits to big fines," said Cameroon Forest Minister Elvis Ngolle.

Logging bans don't directly address forest loss from other threats, such as agriculture, but officials are hoping that a potential money spinner — carbon offsets — will.

A United Nations plan (called REDD) to reduce emissions from deforestation or degradation has enabled Indonesia, which has the world's third-largest forest but is being deforested by palm oil and timber firms, to get $1 billion from Norway in May to revoke those firms' forestry licenses.

Deforestation makes up a fifth of global CO2 emissions and the REDD fund is worth $4 billion so far.

Unlike Asia, African states have been slow to capitalize on climate aid; they account for 2% of developing nation carbon projects. But many hope to change that.

An African Development Bank fund was established in 2008 for the Congo Basin, a forest of half a billion acres spanning nine countries and storing, the bank says, 25- to 30-billion tons of carbon, which currently trades at $18 per ton in Europe.

The fund aims to harmonize forest tax, share ecological data, cooperate on policing and sponsor community projects that encourage forest protection, such as honey-production.

"Expectations are extremely high that this will allow us to preserve the forest, restore what's been degraded and pay these countries for their ecological services," Patrice Wadja, the fund's operations officer, told Reuters.

Gabon's President Ali Bongo seeks to be first in line. He has banned raw wood exports and in May set up a climate council that must come up with a REDD plan for the 80% of its original forest that remains before December's climate talks in Cancun.

Despite the challenges, experts think Africa's forests have at least as good a chance as Brazil or Indonesia.

The rate of forest destruction is generally slower: 0.16% a year in the Congo Basin, compared with 11% in Indonesia, Wadja said, because Central Africa has been largely spared large-scale clearing for agriculture.

West Africa's deforestation is much higher, driven by logging and clearing to plant cash crops, especially cocoa, a topic so sensitive that Reuters could not get permission to visit some forests in Ivory Coast, the top grower.

"At independence, we had 16 million hectares of forest. We today have 6 million. The lost area is now all farms," said Ivorian forest and water technician Yamani Soro.

Improving yields with fertilizer and pesticides is key, although reforms have been blocked by Ivory Coast's post-civil war political crisis.

Drier nations in the semi-desert Sahel belt with scant forest land are meanwhile planning to plant trees. Presidents from Senegal to Djibouti agreed in Chad last month to build a "green wall" thousands of miles long with IMF funds.

But even as Africa curbs illicit logging and plants trees, another threat looms: Asian palm oil companies are eying Africa's forests to feed their growing populations. Liberia has signed deals with two and China this month proposed a vast project in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The big unknown are the Chinese," said conservationist Terese Hart who has worked in the DRC for decades. "They are looking at the interior for exploitation, including palm."

Tansa Musa and Fonka Mutta in Yaounde, Christian Tsoumou in Brazzaville and Betel Miarom in N'Djamena contributed to this report.

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