Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees
His Majesty Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary chief of the village of Ngoyla, Cameroon. (Photo: Alex Chadwick)
A program called REDD could be the fastest, least expensive way to stall global warming. REDD is a scheme that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation by preserving trees. Award-winning correspondent Alex Chadwick and producer Christopher Johnson travel to the Congo Basin to investigate the high stakes of protecting the carbon-rich forest, the wildlife, and people who live there.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Scientists and diplomats with their climate change conferences seldom get to a part of the world that is central to any discussion about carbon: Africa…and especially the Congo Basin.
That is where Living on Earth sent reporter Alex Chadwick – you may know him as the former chief correspondent for the National Geographic Radio Expeditions series on NPR. Alex, welcome to the show. And, what did you find?
CHADWICK: Thanks, Steve – you know, the assignment here is to try to figure out how the big climate policy called REDD –
CURWOOD: Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.
CHADWICK: That is the one – so how would that might work in Africa, and really in the Congo Basin, which holds an enormous amount of the world’s remaining tropical forest.
CURWOOD: Big and carbon-rich. So where do you begin?
CHADWICK: Well, the carbon story is everywhere – I got my first interview for this actually not far from where I live in Los Angeles. But let’s start here with something someone told me once I actually did get to the Congo Basin:
[SOUNDS OF VILLAGE, MAN TALKING, LAUGHING]
CHADWICK: I heard this story from his majesty Chief Mpono Pierre, in the village of Ngoyla, just south of the Dja River in eastern Cameroon.
[CHIEF PIERRE SPEAKING FRENCH]
CHADWICK: About 100-years ago – when Germany claimed a lot of this territory, a patrol fleeing a battle in Congo followed a trail north. One soldier was badly wounded; the patrol took shelter with some local people. The man died, the patrol buried him and moved on. It left behind a diary, a German flag, and a plea to the family that had helped: remain here, please, wait.
[QUIET SOUNDS OF FOREST]
CHADWICK: In some way, the story of REDD in the Congo Basin is the story of what happened to that family, the German flag and the diary. That’s the story that we’re going to tell, and we’re going to begin in the forest of Ngoyla.
[SOUNDS OF FOREST]
CHADWICK: It’s like nature’s Disneyland. We recorded this near what had been a small cluster of Baka people – pygmies. They’ve abandoned this site, or been chased away. We’re in a forest space they had cleared for a shrine. We’re staying quiet, recording. It’s dawn.
[SOUNDS OF FOREST]
JOHNSON: Wow…what was that?
CHADWICK: That’s my friend and producer, Christopher Johnson, and more from him later.
JOHNSON: That was so cool.
CHADWICK: There are many ideas about what to do with all this forest.
BAKARY: If I were the head of state in this country I would have advocated strongly to continue to destroy the forest.
CHADWICK: A government official in Cameroon’s capitol, Yaounde. We’d spoken to him about this forest several days earlier.
BAKARY: Who are destroying the forest in Cameroon? The Europeans! Ameri-…
CHADWICK: The timber companies
BAKARY: Yeah. The timber companies. You Americans, the most richest country on earth, the most powerful country on earth, you used to have lot of forests in your own cities and country. Where is your forest? You destroy it. Now you come in Cameroon and you say, ‘Oh, guy, stop destroying the forest.’ Then why? Why don’t you want us to destroy our own forest to do the same thing that you did?
CHADWICK: Issa Tchroma Bakary, Minister of Communication, and skilled at it, the ‘cut-it-down’ rant a caricature, he says. But what lies behind it – poverty, need, isolation, crippled lives – those are real, and especially in forest communities.
[SOUNDS OF FOREST]
CHADWICK: Congo forest feels eternal, but is not. It’s been this way for about ten thousand years, slowly reestablishing itself after the passing of the last ice age. Indonesian forests are much older.
[SOUNDS OF RAIN]
CHADWICK: Congo forest grows in a vast, wet basin that spreads across the Central African plateau – 700,000 square miles. It is the second largest forest in the world, the Amazon is bigger, but Congo is far less altered, far more ‘natural’.
[SOUNDS OF THUNDER]
CHADWICK: It is wet – RAINforest – though rains vary. One area can get 40 feet in a year; others are almost too dry.
[SOUNDS OF CHIMPANZEES YELLING, HOOTING IN DISTANCE]
CHADWICK: But nowhere else has this wildlife.
[SOUNDS OF CHIMPANZEES NEARBY]
CHADWICK: Congo Basin still shelters poster species – and many of them – with the critter charisma to flutter conservation hearts around the world, which they do. The Ngoyla-Mintom Forest is in the Central Africa, but just barely. It’s on the northwest rim of the Congo Basin. Christopher and I first learned about this forest from a California engineer and business consultant who retired early to follow a passion. His name is…
JOHNSON: Mike Korchinsky.
KORCHINSKY: How often do you get an opportunity to participate in saving two million acres of primary rainforest? If you’re an animal lover like I am, the prospect of protecting habitat for thousands of lowland gorillas and chimpanzees and elephants was too much to pass up.
[SOUNDS OF VENICE CAFÉ]
CHADWICK: This is early summer, at an outdoor café in Venice, the LA beach town. Mike is looking for money – $10 million dollars – to try to buy his way into the carbon rights of the Ngoyla-Mintom forest. He doesn’t have much time. He’s just been in Cameroon, at the Ministry of Forests, and he saw the timber bids for this forest.
KORCHINSKY: Unfortunately, they were in middle of process. So they told us that they couldn’t delay that process indefinitely, and they gave us a month to find the money to make a counter proposal based on the potential for REDD.
CHADWICK: REDD – the climate change, forest-carbon idea. Living on Earth listeners have heard this – here’s a reminder in a simple form, and let’s go back to that forest for a moment.
[CALLS AND CHATTER OF FOREST ANIMALS]
JOHNSON: It’s full of life…and carbon. Cutting trees releases global-warming greenhouse gases – big deforestation is a big contributor of carbon dioxide, or CO2. So, pay places with lots of forests to keep them intact. These carbon forest keepers can then sell their carbon savings as atmospheric offsets to countries and companies with too many emissions.
CHADWICK: In theory, the atmosphere gets less CO2. And, for giving up or deferring their forest-related development opportunities, countries with a lot of forest get money. Possibly billions and many billions.
JOHNSON: Alex, conservationists are gaga for REDD: it reduces CO2; it saves threatened habitat and wildlife; it relieves some of the dire poverty that helps drive deforestation. One policy – many benefits.
CHADWICK: Okay – we’re back with Mike Korchinsky – conservationist and would-be REDD investor.
KORCHINSKY: I was in Cameroon for about a month. I spent three weeks in the forest first to understand what the carbon value of the forest potentially was, and then to get a sense of the biodiversity, and whether or not this place was really a special place to be preserved. And then I went and spent a week in the capitol, with the government, trying to understand their position and try to convince them that they should make a stay of execution if you like, on the forest, and give me an opportunity to rally some financing around a REDD project. Of course it’s an intimidating prospect; I’ve never raised ten million dollars in a month before, so I didn’t know enough to know whether I could or couldn’t do it.
CHADWICK: Mike, remember, retired at age 38 – he knows money people. But this deadline, 30 days; it could take that long just to explain REDD. He needs a special set of money people, the kind with sharpened teeth.
JOHNSON: That’s true, and those people live over in Europe, where carbon trading is already active. French bankers ask to see him. He flies to London, stays overnight, holds one day of meetings – and sells out his entire ten million dollar offering. He doesn’t have to explain the money end of REDD – they already know.
KORCHINSKY: Of course foresters are very good at walking into forests and determining the value of a forest from a timber standpoint, and carbon isn’t that different. About 45 percent of the weight of tree is carbon. So, if you can estimate the weight of a forest you can estimate the number of tons of CO2 that you’d be able to sell. And then you look at the global price, which has ranged dramatically…has never really gone below three dollars a ton of CO2 emission reduction. So, on the basis you can figure out what you think the forest would generate on an annual basis from REDD.
CHADWICK: And that dollar figure is?
KORCHINSKY: Well, I think my estimates are that we’ll be able to generate at least ten million dollars a year, and potentially quite a bit more.
JOHNSON: Yeah, a lot more. For many people, REDD is less about climate than about money.
CHADWICK: We’ll note here that funding is one reason it could take a month to explain REDD. Some groups and governments want it run and regulated by international public agencies like the UN, and paid for by the rich countries, with taxes.
JOHNSON: Others argue that approach is too slow, too cumbersome and too expensive. Private markets can achieve climate goals much better.
CHADWICK: But for everyone chasing the idea of REDD, I have one more question for Mike Korchinsky:
But so much of REDD is unsettled; you don’t know what’s going to happen.
KORCHINSKY: No, but any venture investor he knows what’s going to happen in any investment he makes is probably certifiably mad, I think. There is a thing called risk and return, and that risk and return is both financial and environmental. If we wait until all the rules are in place, at least this forest, it will be too late.
[SOUNDS FADE TO YAOUNDE STREET]
CHADWICK: So that’s what set us off for Cameroon, a country about the size of California in Central-West Africa.
[STREET BAND, CARS HONKING]
JOHNSON: The capitol, Yaounde, is wild over today’s soccer match – Cameroon against Togo.
CHADWICK: If you picture Africa like a fist bent inward, Cameroon would be right where the wrist meets the hand.
JOHNSON: Cameroon facts: it’s got almost 20 million people – split between city and country – many of them are farmers. It’s poor: unemployment, 30 percent; poverty almost 50 percent; life expectancy – 54-years-old.
CHADWICK: But people here never had a civil war, they don’t seem to hate each other or their neighbors. They muddle along, thinking things might get better – they are a recognizable version of us.
JOHNSON: We spend days filing for permits. The Minister of Communication – Mr. ‘go ahead and cut the forest?’ – he never does grant us one.
CHADWICK: We are determined to see the forest Mike Korchinsky described, and to see how people there live – permit or no. And so, armed with an air of innocence, we rent a car to take us 250 miles east, out of Yaounde and into the wild lands. I know driving around Central Africa can be dicey; I’ve been stopped at gunpoint several times.
But now we pass almost unnoticed. The road devolves in stages of decay, but it brings us safely at last to the Dja River. On the other side is the Ngoyla-Mintom forest, home to Mike Korchinsky’s beloved wildlife, and maybe a fortune in carbon…
[MUSIC: Kanda Bongo Man: “Liza” from Soukous In Central Park (Rykodisc 1993)]
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