In 2000, ecologist Michael Fay set off on a 456-day trek across the Republic of Congo and Gabon. Mike Fay hoped to survey some 2,000 square kilometers of the last great remaining blocks of unspoiled tropical forests. And in the process, he hoped to open as many people’s eyes as possible to the natural wonders of the Congo Basin forests.
David Quammen, a freelance writer on assignment for National Geographic magazine, chronicled Mike Fay’s journey in a series of articles and photographs, published over the past three years:
“It’s an amazing countryside, Gabon and the Republic of Congo adjacent to it. Some of my most vivid memories are coming across forest elephant at short range with Mike Fay. And forest elephants can be pretty dangerous at short range, simply because they tend to panic. A female will sometimes charge if she’s got an infant with her. There was at least one occasion where I was with Fay and we were about 40 feet from a forest elephant, a female with a calf. And Mike was hiding behind a little sapling and I was hiding behind him and this elephant charged and at the last minute when the elephant was about ten feet away Mike jumped out from behind the sapling and waved his arms and shouted “AAAGH!” Mike is about five-foot-seven and 120 pounds and he was there in shorts and no shirt and he managed to stop this elephant. The elephant stopped and blasted angrily and rattled her tusks against another tree and then charged off.”
The natural wonders that Mike Fay explored in Gabon and the Republic of Congo are unknown to most of the world – including the citizens of these two countries. But that is slowly changing. The monthly National Geographic magazine published three stories about Mike Fay’s 15-month trek through the Congo River Basin forests and National Geographic Television filmed a documentary on the trek. These reports attracted the attention of President Omar Bongo of Gabon.
Again, freelance writer David Quammen:
“President Bongo had seen all that. He had seen the articles in National Geographic. He had seen the film. And he knew Mike by reputation as the man who walked across Gabon. And he wanted to meet him. He wanted to meet this fellow who had seen intimately, close-up and on foot all these amazing treasures within the country of Gabon, many of which President Bongo and his family had never seen. Mike Fay eventually met President Bongo at New York, at the Plaza Hotel. President Bongo had come in for a U.N. meeting and an audience was arranged so Mike went up to this penthouse suite and the President was there and Mike sat down with his little laptop (computer) which he carries everywhere. And he said, ‘Mr. President here are some of the things that I saw when I walked across your country.’ And he started bouncing through this Power Point (computer graphic) presentation of images on his laptop and the President was just thrilled and astonished by what he saw. And immediately said, ‘We’ve got to show this to my ministers. We’ve got to show this to my people back in Gabon.’ And that was what began the process that led to the meeting on August 1, 2002 when Fay, Lee White and Andre Kamdem made a presentation to the entire cabinet and the President announced that he wanted to declare 13 new National Parks.”
President Bongo announced the 13-park initiative last September at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The decision to create these parks is one of the most significant conservation actions ever taken by a single country. Gabon is setting aside 11% of its land area, or some 17,000 square kilometers of forest, savanna, wetlands, and coastline, in national parks. Conservationists call it a huge gamble, but one that could pay off economically if the country is able to develop enough eco-tourism offerings.
Nicholas Lapham is vice president for policy at Conservation International, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation of biological diversity around the world. He says Gabon is an ideal destination for eco-tourists: “Eco-tourism is a hugely important industry across Africa. It has more potential obviously in some places than in others. Gabon is an example of a country with tremendous eco-tourism potential because it has such a wide range of diverse places to visit. It has the coast. It has a spectacular wildlife that’s relatively easy to see. And it’s also relatively stable politically. You have other countries in the region like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you have considerable instability at the moment. It’s also very difficult to access some of these parks and protected areas where an eco-tourist might want to visit.”
But how will Gabon pay for its new system of national parks?
At the same Johannesburg Summit where President Bongo announced the creation of a new national park system, the United States’ delegation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell made its own important announcement: the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.
The United States was interested in bringing several new initiatives to the Summit. Although American money had been funding some bilateral efforts in the Congo Basin, the Americans felt that a broader approach was needed to protect the forests and the wildlife that live in them. The question was, how to go about doing this?
Some government officials questioned working in the Congo Basin. They felt it was better to focus U.S. government conservation efforts on the Amazon and other tropical forests in Latin America. The countries in the region have closer ties to the United States and the region is considerably more stable than Central Africa.
But that changed after several top-level officials, including U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environment and scientific affairs John Turner, attended a talk given by Mike Fay. Mr. Turner says suddenly the potential of the Congo Basin made sense to them:
“It shows the power of one individual. Michael Fay’s megatransect (large-scale sampling of the ecology) through the Congo Basin captured the imagination of people all over the world. So I was pleased, along with many others like Secretary Powell, President Bush, and many other partner countries and NGO’s, to launch the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, which is probably the most ambitious, boldest conservation effort in the history of the African continent.”
The Congo Basin Forest Partnership brings together the resources and expertise of national governments – including the six Congo Basin countries - international organizations, conservation groups and private industry with the goal of promoting economic development, alleviating poverty and conserving natural resources.
The United States has contributed the majority of the new funds committed: $36 million over four years. Another $17 million in U.S. funds had already been budgeted for conservation efforts in the region. Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, and Japan have also signed onto the initiative although it’s unclear how much funding they will provide.
John Turner says protecting the Congo River Basin forests is something that one government can’t do alone. But he says governments working with the private and civil sectors can be very powerful forces for positive change around the world:
“The enthusiasm has just been wonderful. From the six countries in the Congo Basin – very poor countries ravaged by decades of violence, war, corruption, poverty and disease, willing to bet their future on conservation. The wonderful work, leadership and commitment of major U.S. based international environmental groups, support from countries from Europe and around Africa, and even support from the private sector, American timber companies, and international oil and gas companies. One of the strengths of the efforts indeed is the public/private partnership, where over 30 entities have come together to join their resources and their expertise for the fulfillment of this wonderful, long-term dream.”
Conservation International is one of the non-governmental organization partners. Nicholas Lapham, vice president for policy, praises the decision to channel the funds through NGO’s in the region that will be able to more effectively ensure that the programs are implemented wisely, responsibly and strategically. He says while there is tremendous optimism the real test of the partnership will be to see if it’s successful in raising additional funds from the donor countries and organizations.
“The Congo Basin Forest Partnership has a tremendous amount of potential, but the question is really whether that potential is going to be met. Whether the U.S. is going to meet its commitment to provide $36 million in new resources over the next three years. Whether they’re going to be successful in leveraging resources from some of the other key donors like the Europeans, like the World Bank, like the private sector and frankly like the NGO’s. That’s really the major challenge. Thirty-six million dollars is only really a down payment on what’s needed to effectively conserve these resources over the long-term. To be able to do that is going to require orders of magnitude, more money, and that’s going to take a concerted effort by these partners to try and raise that money and make sure it’s applied effectively.”
Conservationists and politicians say the U.S. decision to get involved in Congo Basin forest protection is a major turning point in conservation history. While Gabon is leading the way with its system of 13 new national parks, they hope the other five countries in the Congo Basin Forest Partnership will soon follow in its footsteps.