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Efforts Under Way to Save Congo Basin Forests - 2003-01-24

Officials of six African countries and several western nations this week began an effort to save the vast forests of the Congo Basin region. The delegates reached agreement on several plans.

Four months after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell officially launched the Congo Basin Forest Partnership in Johannesburg, the countries involved gathered to pursue their ambitious goal.

Delegates agreed to coordinate conservation efforts by the various countries in the Basin, to work toward a crackdown on illegal logging and to find ways for local people to benefit from the forest without destroying it.

The Congo Basin contains a quarter of the world's tropical forest, and is second only in size to the Amazon rainforest.

American conservationist Michael Fay, who attended the conference, says the past 20 years of human development, including illegal logging, has wreaked environmental havoc in the ecologically delicate region. "20 years from now, 30 years from now, if the current trends continue, there will not be a single tract of virgin forest left," he said.

Civil wars and other conflicts also regularly batter the region. Cameroon's environment minister, Chief Clarkson, says that is a particularly difficult kind of environmental damage to stop. "The people in power want conservation [to] go this way," said Chief Clarkson. "The rebels want conservation to go this way. The rebels are not responsible to anybody, because after that they will disappear into thin air and a lot of governments have to answer for things that have gone on in those places."

The U.S. and French governments have earmarked more than $50 million each for the Congo Basin Forest Partnership. Numerous other governments and environmental groups are also participating. The six African governments in the Congo Basin region are expected to cooperate closely, in an effort that aims both to conserve the forests, and to bring economic benefits such as tourism.

But some environmentalists, like Ludovic Frere of Greenpeace, have misgivings about the initiative.

Mr. Frere worries there is too little input from non-governmental groups and local people. He also worries the funding may end up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

But Jeffry Burnam, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the environment, argues the money will be well spent. "The partnership will have means to ensure that none of its resources are diverted to other purposes," he said. "We will certainly not be handing any money to anyone who is going to divert it to some other purpose, and we will have means to ensure that our funds are properly spent."

The forest project is funded until 2005. But the participants, including the United States, say they have an even longer-term commitment to the issue.