Friday, July 13, 2007

African Logging Decimating Pristine Forests, Report Warns

June 7, 2006—Logging roads are being built faster than ever through central Africa's dense tropical forests, which are considered among the world's most pristine, according to a new study.
Scientists used satellite data to map logging activity between 1976 and 2003 in six central African countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The results, pictured here, show that new logging roads (red) are penetrating deep into approved logging areas (gray) while also cutting close to, and sometimes through, protected forests (dark green).
"It's the first time we have this high-resolution view of what's going on in the region," said Nadine LaPorte of the Woods Hole Research Institute in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who led the research.
Her team's study will be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.
The roads were densest in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, the study showed. But the fastest changing area was in northern Republic of the Congo, where the rate of road construction has nearly quadrupled in 30 years.
"Things are changing fast as logging companies move into new areas," LaPorte said.

Giant mahogany trees lie alongside a logging road in northern Republic of the Congo.

African Logging Decimating Pristine Forests, Report Warns
Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
June 7, 2007

Industrial logging is increasingly gobbling up Africa's tropical forests, satellite data shows (see pictures).

Researchers studied 300 satellite images covering more than 1.5 million square miles (4 million square kilometers) to track the expansion of logging roads from 1976 to 2003.

The data suggests that 30 percent of forests in six central African countries are under ownership of private logging companies. Logging is the most extensive form of land use in the region.

In contrast, about 12 percent of the forests are set aside for conservation.

The new study represents the first comprehensive satellite mapping of central Africa's dense and humid forests.

(See related: "Aerial Survey Documents Africa's Last Wild Places" [August 17, 2005].)

"This is the first time we've been able to see how vast the imprint of the logging is on the landscape," said study lead author Nadine LaPorte, director of the Africa program at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Inroads for Logging

Central Africa's tropical forests have long been considered among the most pristine on Earth.

However, there are now more than 230,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) of forest under logging concessions in six central African countries: Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see a map of the region).

The researchers mapped more than 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers) of logging roads within this region. They found that logging roads account for 38 percent of the length of all roads in the area studied.

In the Republic of the Congo, the total length of logging roads is two times that of the national roads, LaPorte said.

The highest logging-road densities were found in the coastal nations of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.

Historically most of the logging in Africa is for export, LaPorte said, so the practice is often done close to the coastline and the ports.

Logging in Cameroon has extended inland in recent decades after the earlier harvesting of coastal forest, she added.

Most of the logging in central Africa focuses on high-value trees like mahogany that are exported for use in furniture in Europe and Asia.

In contrast, most of the wood in Brazil's Amazon forest is used domestically.

A New Frontier

Documenting the growth of logging roads enables scientists to understand the extent to which the environment is being changed.

The study found that the area undergoing the most rapid change was in northern Republic of the Congo, where the rate of road construction has grown about four times over the three decades.

But LaPorte warns that a "new frontier" of logging expansion may also be opened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as the DRC, as that country achieves greater political stability and attracts interest from foreign logging companies.

(See related: "Endangered Gorillas 'Held Hostage' by Rebels in Africa Park" [May 23, 2007].)

The DRC, which is about the size of western Europe, contains almost two-thirds of the region's remaining forests.

The study, which will appear tomorrow in the journal Science, shows that the DRC has the lowest logging-road density—at least that has been measured thus far. But the country's population density is three times greater than that of its Republic of the Congo neighbor.

"We should be very concerned about logging in areas where we have high population density," LaPorte said.

"If you have lots of people and you do logging at the same time, what happens is you're going to have deforestation," she said, "and you will go from a forest ecosystem to an agricultural system."

Robert Nasi of the Center for International Forestry Research in Montpellier, France, said the paper is a "useful resume" about the expansion of roads in Central Africa. But, he said, it also seems "short of many approximations or [has] missing information."

Nasi added that roads drive development in places like central Africa.

"With roads come all the blessings—access to medication, access to markets for your products—and all the curses of development ... [such as] increased harvesting of natural resources and agricultural encroachment."

Carbon Impacts

The shrinking of Africa's tropical forests could also have global climate change implications, researchers warn.

Forests store up to half of the Earth's terrestrial carbon stock, or 45 times the amount of carbon emitted every year through the burning of fossil fuels and the production of cement.

The DRC is estimated to hold 8 percent of the Earth's carbon, which is stored in living forests, according to a recent report by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The DRC's intact rain forests "act as a break on further acceleration of climate change by serving as a vast carbon reserve," said Phil Aikman, international forest campaigner for Greenpeace in London.

When forests are cleared for agriculture or other use, up to half of the carbon they held may be emitted into the atmosphere, the report said.

The Greenpeace report authors write: "Given the pivotal role of the forest in terms of climate change, it is deeply worrying that to date no concrete steps have been taken to stop degradation of the DRC's forests."

In this satellite image, the yellow line left of center represents a main logging road in central Africa, while the perpendicular lines denotes secondary logging roads.
The yellow dots mark the areas affected by skid trails and tree-felling.
"It's pretty striking," said Nadine LaPorte, a habitat ecologist who led the satellite survey. "There's clearly a lot of disturbance in the forest."
The researchers were not able to establish whether the land grants, called concessions, given to the loggers, are legal.
"In the Democratic Republic of Congo there's an area that we mapped with logging roads that should not have had a logging concession," LaPorte said.
"There are two possibilities: Either the logging is illegal, or it may have been legal at some point. But it's impossible to tell."

Can Central Africa's Rain Forests Live With Logging?
James Owen
for National Geographic News
November 18, 2004

Can central Africa's tropical forests, with their extraordinary wealth of wildlife, live alongside the logger's chainsaw?

It's a question raised by a major new study into logging activity in six countries in the Congo Basin.

Researchers surveyed a sample of 31 logging concessions in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Guinea, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The study was done of behalf of the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO). Based in Yokohama, Japan, the ITTO is an intergovernmental body that promotes sustainable use of tropical forest resources.

Over the past 40 years commercial logging in central Africa has spread from accessible coastal areas to the Congo River Basin's interior rain forests. There are now hundreds of logging concessions in the region.

The study confirms environmentalists' concerns that logging can spur more hunting of wild animals and the overharvest of commercially valuable timber. Yet the researchers also say logging companies can help to conserve vulnerable areas of rain forest, provided they operate in an environmentally sustainable way.

Central Africa has the world's second largest area of rain forest after South America's Amazon Basin. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone has 463,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of tropical forest, an area three times the size of California.

Of central Africa's remaining undisturbed forest, around 40 percent now falls within commercial logging concessions granted by governments to companies and individuals.

While the ITTO study found that loggers target 35 tree species, just two, gaboon mahogany and sapele mahogany, account for over half of all logged timber. Four other species compose another 25 percent.

Operational costs drive this selectivity, according to Robert Nasi, the report's co-author.

"The main reason is distance to port and markets," said Nasi, a forestry scientist with the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research. "When you log in the Central African Republic, you need to transport your timber by road over more than a thousand kilometers [620 miles]."

As a result, Nasi said, companies only log commercially valuable tree species, which fetch prices that cover the cost of harvest and transport.

Selective Harvesting

Selective cutting doesn't threaten the survival of these trees, according to the study's authors. But the practice does mean loggers need to operate over a much larger area of rain forest, they said.

"This increases penetration inside the forest and opens new, previously untouched forests," Nasi said.

In Cameroon, for example, well over half of all "low-access" forest now lies within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of a logging road, according to the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Low-access forest is defined as continuous forest covering at least a thousand square kilometers (386 square miles).

As access to once remote forests grows, so does the risk of greater "bush meat" hunting, or the hunting of wild animals for food. Bush-meat hunters kill not only forest antelopes, wild pigs, and primates, but also endangered mammals such as gorillas and forest elephants.

The ITTO study found that all but one of the logging concessions surveyed said hunting was a problem.

"Bush meat provides up to 80 percent of the protein needs of local communities in the region, and hunting is largely practiced everywhere," Nasi said.

The study authors also report that many logging concessions lack adequate management plans. The researchers found that among all concessions with shorter-term logging leases—with terms under ten years—none had management plans in place.

Despite these findings, the study's authors suggest central Africa can sustain more logging and that timber concessions could actually help advance conservation goals.

Logging activity on the studied concessions was relatively light, according to the researchers. They noted that, on average, only two to three trees per hectare (2.5 acres) were harvested.

Nasi said there is room to increase that level of timber harvesting per hectare: Companies could log a wider range of trees species, which in turn should reduce pressure to expand operations into virgin rain forest, he said.

"Concessionaires will be likely to harvest more species if they can sell them at a profit," he added. "The best way to intensify … the harvest [locally] would be to put in place incentives—for instance, lower taxes—for the less valuable species."

Rain Forest Biodiversity

About 8 percent of central Africa's low-access tropical forest are protected by parks and reserves. Nasi said properly managed logging concessions can help to preserve rain forest biodiversity in other areas.

One example he cited is curbing the bush-meat trade.

"[Most] logging companies do not like to see their name associated with hunting, as they make no money out of it and get only bad press," Nasi said. "So they are willing to cooperate with [nongovernmental organizations] to tackle the problem."

Nasi said successful plans are already in place. He cites the example of a 150,000-hectare (370,000-acre) concession in northeast Gabon operated by Bordamur, an Indonesian logging company. The concession sits alongside Minkébé National Park, a huge area of protected tropical forest.

In 2001 WWF (World Wildlife Fund) brokered an agreement among the company, regional authorities, and local people to exclude commercial hunters and bush-meat traders from the forest. Local villagers, meanwhile, are still permitted to hunt.

Jeff Sayer, forests conservation advisor at WWF International in Gland, Switzerland, said WWF is looking to establish similar arrangements on other concessions. The goal is to reduce hunting to sustainable levels.

"We have been criticized for this in the media on the grounds we are supping with the devil," he said. "But one cannot simply ignore realities on the ground."

Forestry is becoming increasingly important to the central African economy. In Cameroon, for example, tropical timber products generate around 20 percent of the country's export revenue.

Elsewhere, the Democratic Republic of Congo is trying to kick-start its economy after years of civil war. The country is currently opening up previously untouched areas of its vast rain forests to logging companies, a move that has attracted fierce criticism from environmentalists.

But Nasi said: "Logging will continue, like it or not. And our role is to make sure that it's done as best as possible. A properly managed timber concession is most likely to be the best bet in terms of biodiversity conservation outside protected areas."

Environmental organizations, however, are currently campaigning against plans to expand industrial logging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country holds by far the largest area of pristine rain forest in central Africa.

Greenpeace, the environmental nonprofit, claims that instead of helping to alleviate poverty, increased logging will fuel corruption, social conflict, and environmental destruction.

Filip Verbelen, forest campaigner for Greenpeace, said, "Experience from other countries in the Congo Basin, such as Cameroon, clearly shows that it is extremely difficult to control the multiple negative impacts of logging, such as the illegal bush-meat trade, illegal timber trade, and social conflicts. Even when multilateral agencies such as the World Bank put serious conditions in place for the forestry sector, they often turn a blind eye when implementation proves to be poor."

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