The fundamental challenge, analysts say, is ensuring that economic development of the Congo Basin happens in a way that is ecologically sustainable.
This is particularly difficult in the DRC – by far the most populated nation in the region – where poverty rates are high and the government is looking to boost its oil output.
“The opportunity cost for forest conservation is so high given the alternative uses (for) forest lands,” said Jack Hurd, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance.
He said a significant amount of finance is needed to incentivise good behaviours, as well as time to create structures for sustainable development such as robust regulations and local capacity to manage the rainforest.
“Unless you’re looking at the whole ecosystem… you’re just playing defence – trying to keep things from happening in a protected area,” Hurd said.
A model for this kind of sustainable development may be found in Gabon, a sparsely populated nation in the Congo Basin where deforestation decreased by 28% in 2021, according to the Climate Focus report.
Marie-Claire Paiz, Gabon country director at environmental organisation The
Nature Conservancy, said the country has benefitted from strict forest management standards.
For example, she said, forestry operators are required to develop a management plan to harvest trees on a 25-year rotation, based on a detailed inventory of tree species and size.
The country also hopes carbon markets can encourage further investment, with businesses paying for forest conservation to offset their emissions, and her organisation is supporting the government to ensure that carbon credits are robust.
At COP27 this week, a new Africa Carbon Markets Initiative was launched with the aim of developing the continent’s voluntary carbon markets for projects like biodiversity protection.
Even in Gabon, however, Paiz said there could be growing tensions if communities fail to benefit from nature protection, especially as the country is forced to move away from the oil industry – its primary source of revenue.
“We need to figure (out) ways of helping to maintain the forest cover that we have right now, and do it in a way that is totally supportive to the economies of those countries,” she said.
“The world will pay for it, otherwise.”