A recently published report, “State of protected areas in Central Africa: 2020,” explains the current condition of protected areas in Central Africa and provides recommendations for their improvement.
Roughly 50 regional and global authors worked to create this 400-page report, which serves as an update from the 2015 edition and now includes more detail on topics such as pastoralism, human-wildlife conflicts and extractive industries.
It was published by the Central Africa Forest Observatory (OFAC), which gathers data on the ecosystems of the 10 member countries of the Commission of Central African Forests (COMIFAC), an intergovernmental organization that strives to protect the region’s forests. The report was produced with the support of a host of organizations including the European Union (EU), the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), and GIZ.
“This report makes a significant contribution to the analysis of the many factors that determine the success of protected areas in Central Africa, but also of the challenges that will need to be addressed in order to achieve the global objectives set,” says Trevor Sandwith, Director of the Global Protected Areas Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a press release.
Central Africa contains some of the world’s most iconic and ecologically important landscapes. A biodiversity hot spot and a key part of the fight against climate change, the region contains the world’s second-largest tropical forest – the Congo Basin – which is home to a massive diversity of species and sustains the livelihoods of around 80 million people.
Yet protected areas in Central Africa are also highly threatened, notably from development and illegal activities like poaching. Some parts are plagued by instability and violence, and park rangers regularly face danger. In January this year, six park rangers in the Congo’s Virunga National Park were killed by a local militia.
Nevertheless, the report finds that protected areas in Central Africa make up 15 percent of the countries’ land area and 5 percent of the marine area, totaling to 799,000 square kilometers. This marks a roughly 20 percent increase between 2011 and 2020, which indicates progress toward achieving Aichi Target 11, a global goal enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity that has aimed to protect 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of marine habitats globally.
In fact, three countries in the region – Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic, and São Tomé and Príncipe – have already met this target, when strictly considering what are defined as “protected areas” under national law. If World Heritage sites, Ramsar sites and biosphere reserves are also included, the only Central African countries that have not yet achieved this goal are Burundi and Rwanda.
However, the authors highlight several areas for improvement, notably heightening the governance of protected areas and better managing their relationship with extractive industries like mining and oil extraction.
Managing protected areas
The traditional management of protected areas, according to the report, stems from the colonial period and has excluded Indigenous and local communities from the management of their resources. This has led to conflicts or the eviction of the traditional inhabitants of these areas, such as the Baka peoples of the Congo Basin.
“[Colonial-era] protected area management policies and frameworks failed to fully integrate key success factors, such as social, cultural and political issues, which in turn triggered adverse social impacts on local communities, disrupting their traditional ways of living and limiting their control of and access to natural resources,” says Bertille Mayen Ndiong, an author of the report and the project coordinator for Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire for the German development agency GIZ.
“This considerably undermined protected areas’ protection policies due to conflicts between park managers and local communities. It has also reduced greatly the level of local communities’ compliance with protected area conservation strategies.”
Conservation practices that are inclusive to Indigenous and local populations are considered an alternative to the classic model of conservation against local communities. To achieve this, the authors recommend a decentralization of management and more community involvement.
One example is Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda, where 10 percent of the park’s revenue from tourism goes to socio-economic projects that are directed toward local communities. They also participate in running the park, such as by conducting patrols, fighting wildfires and aiding research.
Community members’ participation in protected area management incentivizes them to comply with the areas’ policies, as Mayen Ndiong and her team found after assessing three protected areas between 2016 and 2020 on their social impact on local communities, their site-level governance and management effectiveness.
“Our studies suggested that greater inclusion of local communities in protected area management is one of the key strategies for ensuring the success of conservation strategies,” she says.
The report suggests that locals be educated about both their rights and the importance of conservation, thereby reducing misunderstandings between communities and environmental experts and thus allowing local people to become protectors of the land themselves.
More regional cooperation is also needed, as many of the protected areas span national boundaries. Better coordination can produce positive results, as shown by the increased number of mountain gorillas in recent decades as a result of better transboundary collaboration between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
Other management changes that the authors call for include extending projects to last at least 10 years and improving training for future managers, such as by providing more workshops and internships. Training programs must also be adapted for people in rural areas that might be illiterate but often equipped with crucial knowledge and skills.
Central Africa’s protected areas are rich not only in biodiversity but also in natural resources. Beneath their soils hide a treasure trove of highly demanded commodities like oil, gas, copper, cobalt, manganese, uranium and diamonds.
Many Central African countries’ economies are heavily dependent on these types of extractive industries. The top five exports of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019, for example, were refined copper, cobalt, copper ore, crude petroleum and raw copper. Altogether, these products made up roughly 89 percent of the country’s total export value of USD 8.16 billion.
“African countries are all in search of economic development. They rely on the wealth under their soil to achieve these goals,” says Georges Belmond Tchoumba, another author of the report and the Central African Regional Forest Programme Coordinator at the World Wildlife Fund. “Unfortunately, these natural resources overlap with the rich biological diversity in these countries.”
The report states that 60 percent of protected areas in the region – including forest landscapes – are covered by contracts with such extractive industries. And 100 percent of the region’s maritime exclusive economic zones are under gas or oil drilling permits, including in protected areas. By contrast, conservation laws in most Central African countries prohibit most industrial activity in protected areas, but mining and petroleum interests often flout these rules.
Worse yet, governments sometimes come under pressure to remove an area’s protected status for resource extraction, such as when the Congolese government in 2018 attempted to downgrade the status of 21.5 percent of Virunga National Park to make way for oil and gas exploration.
“In general, we have observed that mining and petroleum laws have a certain preeminence over those protecting biological diversity. That is why in many Central African countries there is a great temptation to declassify protected areas in favor of mining,” says Tchoumba.
“If these declassification plans are not always carried out, it is very often thanks to international campaigns led by environmentalists against economic operators and not always from the desire of states to protect their biological diversity.”
Mining and drilling are well-known threats to protected areas. In addition to stripping the ground of vegetation and driving out wildlife, they can harm local communities, such as by poisoning water resources. But can these industries be co-opted in order to minimize the damage they inflict upon the environment?
One way may be by empowering and regulating artisanal miners. In virtually every Central African country, there is a small-scale mining sector that is often illegal and acting within protected areas. The authors of the report recommend legalizing these artisanal mining operations outside of protected areas, encouraging them to form cooperatives or professional organizations, and then governing them with stricter regulations. These artisanal miners, for example, would be prohibited from mining in protected areas, engaging in the ivory trade, employing child labor or using harmful pollutants such as mercury.
A similar idea is proposed for larger companies: permit their activities in less-protected areas as long as the conservation goals of these places can still be fulfilled.
The authors do state that when petroleum companies strictly follow regulations and laws, the environmental impact can then be controlled. However, they note that this strategy might not be feasible until governments are strong enough to effectively monitor these activities and apply the law. For many Central African countries, this is simply not yet the case.
In the meantime, the report calls for environmental education and awareness to be raised throughout society, as protected areas are often regarded by leaders as underutilized land, while many local populations see them as restrictions that keep them in poverty.
While protected areas provide numerous benefits such as through supplying water and regulating the microclimate, these benefits are described as often not being equally shared in society. Thus, the importance of environmental services must be made known to communities and policymakers.
“For many Central African countries, protecting the environment remains a luxury they cannot afford,” says Tchoumba. “It also is not always one of their priorities, despite the international agreements that they subscribe to.
“It will be extremely difficult for the protection of biological diversity to resist the development of extractive industries unless we develop models of economic development that integrate biodiversity as an economically valuable resource.”