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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 3

Air Date: Week of

Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary leader of the village of forest village of Ngoyla in Cameroon has this question for Western nations contemplating buying carbon credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions: 'What are you waiting for?' (Photo: Alex Chadwick)

Living on Earth’s special report on REDD and the Congo Basin concludes. There’s optimism that REDD could help preserve the carbon in the trees and, perhaps, alleviate the poverty of the nation’s people.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If UN climate policy is going to cut carbon emissions by cutting deforestation, it’s going to have to work in the huge, carbon-rich forests of Central Africa and the Congo Basin. We continue now with our report from Alex Chadwick, who went to Kinshasa, the capitol of the largest country there, the Democratic Republic of Congo.


CHADWICK: It is hard remaining positive in Kinshasa. A foreign adviser to the government told this story. Someone in the Ministry of Environment wanted to hold a mini-conference with other ministries. He wrote a letter of invitation and got it approved. But he couldn’t send it out because there was no paper for the printer.

When another foreigner finally produced a ream, the letters still couldn’t be delivered because there was no gas for the car. He couldn’t just mail it, of course – Congo doesn’t have a functioning postal service.

CREIGHTON: Democratic Republic of Congo has enormous needs and ambitions to develop a stable and more prosperous economy.

JOHNSON: That American voice belongs to an official representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

CHADWICK: He’s a deeply experienced adviser to World Wildlife Fund International, and with many years in Africa, and Ken Creighton is an actual delegate – one of several, and not the leader he is quick to note – still, a delegate to the UN climate talks for DR Congo.

CHADWICK: Is there a number that you could put on the carbon value of the forests of Democratic Republic of Congo?

CREIGHTON: Well, it’s basically immense. It’s calculated in terms of literally hundreds of billions of tons of carbon. Probably were it all to disappear in a short period, it represents decades worth of global emissions from all other sources.

JOHNSON: Consider those numbers, just for a minute. Now, think about the carbon calculations that policy makers apply when looking at Congo.

CHADWICK: Billions of tons of carbon, dangerous for the atmosphere. So pay Congo Basin countries to maintain their forest…but pay them what? There is a lot of money in REDD, even though we don’t know exactly what the market will be when — and if —the details get settled.

JOHNSON: OK, back to Ken Creighton.

CREIGHTON: Well, on a global level, in order to actually begin concrete actions and compensation for reducing emissions will require somewhere in the range between 15 and 25 billion dollars between now and 2015.

CHADWICK: What people know about DR Congo is: there’s a war going on; DR Congo can’t control it own physical limits of its own country; it has a reputation for enormous corruption. And the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is saying, ‘We need to send these people a lot of money…a lot of money.’

KC: Well, I think the basis of that is we cannot achieve our goals in terms of reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change unless we can find a solution to this second largest block of tropical forest on the planet.


CHADWICK: A forest adviser in Kinshasa shows me a satellite map of a forest area the size of South Carolina. It includes the last refuge of what is thought to be humankind’s nearest evolutionary ape, the bonobo chimpanzee.

The image is all dark green with tree canopy, and there are rivers, and a few tiny clearings. It looks like total wilderness – but three-quarters of a million people live there, the adviser says. And this is the most important thing I learn in the Congo Basin. The vast forests, the ones conservationists would sanctify and climate scientists seal off are home to many, many people…millions of them.


JOHNSON: The Baka have been in the Congo Basin forever, living carbon-neutral and with abundant wildlife.


JOHNSON: This interview is from a small Baka community in Cameroon, but Baka ignore most political boundaries. This man, Menyango Daniel, has been leader of this group for 40 years.


JOHNSON: We know some outsiders want to save the forest, he says. The forest is why we live here. It’s everything.

CHADWICK: Is the weather changing? Do the weather conditions change, is the rain changing?


JOHNSON: Menyango Daniel says, many things have changed. Now, he says, we have to go a very long way to hunt.


JOHNSON: I used to know when to sow my garden to avoid the heavy rains, Menyango Daniel explains, now those rains come in planting season.

CHADWICK: The fate of the forest turns out to be less about climate and carbon and more about the people who live there, who’ve always lived there, and will go on living there. In Congo, they’re eating away at the forest very slowly. With help, they can learn to farm more sustainably. But they are not going away, and any plan to reduce forest emissions that doesn’t include them will fail.


CHADWICK: There’s a large green space in the downtown part of Kinshasa, the city botanical garden. It’s where we meet the DRC Minister for Environment, Jose Endundo.


VOICEOVER: For many centuries, the Congolese people have been protecting the forest. The process of redistributing the money will be done at the appropriate time. We are involved in very important negotiations. We are working with other countries to reach an agreement, and to see how we can benefit from this.

CHADWICK: I spoke to a man today who represents civil society, groups across the country, conservation groups. He said he had a question for you – will the money go to the Treasury, or will it go to the communities?


VOICEOVER: I will be very frank with you! It is not good that developed countries, especially Western countries, should say there is bad governance here and use that as an excuse not to fund REDD.

You are the ones who made the pollution from factories, airline traffic and energy production. We don’t ask you how you use the money you got from pollution activities. It’s not fair for you to ask us how are you going to use this money from REDD, we should concentrate on how we can fix this problem together.

CHADWICK: Many people don’t like REDD because they’re afraid the West will just pay you for carbon credits and go on polluting.


VOICEOVER: No, No, No, No, No, No… I don’t share your opinion. We are all in the same boat. We have to limit temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees change. The ideal goal would be to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 350 parts per million on a global scale. We must agree on these conditions because we are all in the same boat.

Studies show that poor countries will be the most affected. So, regarding the responsibility of the DRC, we know very well what we have to do. Congo is among the richest countries in the world in natural resources and biodiversity; we have half the water reserve in Africa and half the forests in Africa and many other resources.

We know what we have and we are not going to miss this opportunity to benefit from that. And we are sure that Congo is going to play an important role. Congo cannot miss this historic chance to benefit from that richness. Africa as a whole would benefit, as well.

CHADWICK: Jose Endundo, minister of the Environment for the Democratic Republic of Congo, speaking with us at a park in downtown Kinshasa.


CHADWICK: Wildlife conservationist and carbon-investor Mike Korchinsky is still waiting to hear about his ten million dollar REDD bid for the Ngoyla-Mintom forest in Cameroon. He had thought he would win that bid; he’s less sure now, but more confident that Ngoyla-Mintom will become a REDD forest, with protections for the carbon, and the wildlife, and the people who live there.

KORCHINSKY: Those forests are now an advantage that those people who live with wildlife and live in these remote areas have over the rest of us, because they still have forests and that forest is now of value in what the emerging carbon market-place.

Twelve months ago that was an idea that was being hypothesized—that these forests would have value. Today it looks like a runaway train in a sense, in that now all the climate conversations involve this idea of forests or avoided deforestation as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

JOHNSON: An international conservation expert agrees. REDD, he told us, isn’t ecotourism. This is real money—this is going to make a difference.


CHADWICK: John Flynn, of the Central African environment program, is more skeptical of REDD’s potential. But he sounds remarkably confident about prospects for Kinshasa—corrupt, he says, maddening, and the best place to see what is going to happen in Central Africa.

FLYNN: It’s a desperately poor country, and this whole region is desperately poor for so many reasons. It’s rich in resources, but the people among the poorest in the world. The DRC has among greatest malnourishment rate of anywhere in the world. So it’s going to be tempting when people put those kind of numbers around.

But the one thing I can say about the region is that they’re used to people flim – you know, coming in and making big promises, and they’ve been disappointed for a hundred years. And they’re skeptical and they’re cynical about these outsiders. So I think that might serve them well actually at some level.


CHADWICK: About one hundred years ago in the dense Congo forest of southeast Cameroon, a German military patrol marched away from a clearing that would become the village of Ngoyla. The soldiers left gifts with a family that had helped them – a diary and a German flag – and they asked the family to wait…


CHADWICK: Over the years, the diary has gone missing. The meaning behind the flag was difficult for the family to discern, but the value of woven material was not. They cut it up for loincloths.


CHADWICK: The forest remains and the descendants of Ngoyla’s founders…and His Majesty Chief Mpono Pierre who told us this story.


CHADWICK: We sit in the shade of a porch outside his small, neat mud-brick home at the southern end of the village. We are waiting, he says. He’s an older man who remains tall and lean. He wears a military style jacket of pressed khaki linen; he holds a totem of office in his lap, a long dried-grass whisk.

His Majesty Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary chief of the village of Ngoyla, Cameroon. (Photo: Alex Chadwick)


CHADWICK: You ask about climate and carbon and the value of trees, he says. Everyone knows about the value of trees; we know that the forest can clean the atmosphere. We know this already…so what are you waiting for?


CHADWICK: Minutes pass away in the midday heat. His level gaze suggests not impatience so much as a long weariness.


CHADWICK: We are waiting, says Chief Mpono Pierre, and behind him the last structures of the village of Ngoyla give way to the great, carbon-rich forest of the Congo Basin.


[MUSIC: Papa Wemba “Aladji Djambo” from Et La Musica Viva (Sonodisc 1994)]

CURWOOD: Alex Chadwick, thanks to you and Christopher Johnson for that report, but before you go tell me, where exactly do things stand now, and how much longer is that village chief going to have to wait?

CHADWICK: Boy, that is the question! You know, Steve, these REDD policies depend on people agreeing to play by the rules—regulated market rules to value carbon, how to count it, etcetera. That's what the big Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to settle all this, it didn't.

There’s another climate summit this year in Mexico. But not long ago France and Norway convened a smaller climate summit and issued invitations—it was limited, not everyone got to go. This was a forest basins conference, the people with lots of rainforest the people that really matter. So now there is a kind of leadership group coming out of that—France, Norway, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now, this might help that village chief eventually. All these countries are charged with verifying and building on the financial pledges that did come out of Copenhagen—keep pushing for preparation for full implementation of REDD. You know, Steve, there are lots of models for cooperative global initiatives, but when was the last one that featured the Democratic Republic of Congo in a prominent role?

CURWOOD: So what about that 'full implementation' of REDD? Because that really is what the chief and poor communities throughout the tropical belt are looking for, right?

CHADWICK: Exactly, that’s the only alternative to logging their forests. And the answer to those questions—when, how, how much—all these answers actually lie in Washington, DC, Steve, because the U.S. Senate has not acted on climate legislation, the legislation passed last year by the House, and until the Senate does act—until the U.S. has a climate policy, the world is not going to really settle on a global policy.

But if the Senate does pass a climate bill this year—if the U.S. comes into cap and trade—watch for this market to explode and money to start showing up lots of places. Our gross carbon emissions are enormous. We will be the biggest player in the game, that’s going to make a difference in bustling places like Kinshasa, and probably even in the small forest village of Ngoyla in eastern Cameroon.

CURWOOD: You’ve been listening to a special report of Living on Earth – REDD in the Congo Basin. And thanks to you, Alex Chadwick, for bring us that story.

CHADWICK: Steve, you’re welcome. A pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: And thanks also to your producer Christopher Johnson, and mixing engineer Sven Holcombe. Thanks also to Fon Louis Che in Cameroon, and in Kinshasa, Rhona Mulongoy, David Weiner and Cynthia Moses of the International Conservation and Education Fund.

[MUSIC: Papa Wemba “Aladji Djambo” from Et La Musica Viva (Sonodisc 1994)]


CURWOOD: We leave you this week in the forest at dawn.


CURWOOD: In the Congo Basin, at a small glade, there’s an opening in the forest. Here, amongst the tall trees, ropey lianas, and undergrowth, the Baka pygmy people have made a small shrine. To see photos of the shrine and more, go to our website l-o-e dot org




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