More than fifty countries with large areas of tropical forests in their borders have announced they will launch an agreement to better facilitate forest conservation. Representatives from the nations met in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo last week to discuss the fate of the world’s forests and the importance of tropical forests as carbon sinks, strongholds of biodiversity, and providers of essential ecosystem services for millions of people. Countries represented at the summit are home to more than four fifths of the planet’s tropical rainforest cover.
Around the world tropical forests are threatened by human activities that include logging, conversion of forests to agricultural land, construction of large dams, and climate change. Meanwhile large human populations depend on rainforests for services like flood control, drinking water, and hunting and fishing grounds. The UN Environment Programme estimates that 1.6 billion people rely on forests to make a living.
Thirty-two of the countries at the Brazzaville summit are located within one of three great river basins that contain 80% of the world’s tropical forests. These three regions—the Amazon Basin in South America, the Congo Basin in central Africa, and the Mekong-Borneo Basin in Southeast Asia—are also believed to house two thirds of the plant and animal species on Earth. Countries that lie outside the three basins but still have significant areas of tropical forest were also represented, and include several from Central America, southern Africa, and western Africa.
The summit convened in Brazzaville on Tuesday of last week, and finished on Friday with participants announcing they will be working on a formal forest protection agreement in the months ahead. National leaders hope to have a new agreement ready for signing by next year’s Rio+20 UN Conference in Brazil. Rio+20 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the Rio de Janeiro Summit, one of the first UN conferences on international environmental issues, held in 1992.
Forested nations also plan to present their joint framework for rainforest conservation at this year’s climate change summit in Durban, South Africa. Slowing or halting deforestation is already regarded as one of the easiest ways to reduce the carbon emissions which contribute to climate change. If tropical countries can show they have a plan in place to curb deforestation, it could prompt other nations to take their own steps to reduce emissions. Brazzaville summit participants also hope to persuade richer countries to help finance forest conservation efforts.
At least some of the countries meeting in Brazzaville last week have already had a certain amount of success reducing the loss of their forests. As a group, countries from the three great forest basins saw a 24% drop in average deforestation rates over the last decade, as compared with the 1990s. However some individual countries, like Indonesia, continue to experience out-of-control deforestation that threatens biodiversity while releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. And in countries where gains have been made, constant vigilance is needed to prevent the unraveling of years of conservation efforts.
For example in Brazil, a nation where deforestation dropped to record lows last year, the nation’s lower legislative chamber recently passed revisions to the national Forest Code. If made into law, these revisions could make it easier for farmers and agricultural companies to clear rainforest without replanting, and send deforestation rates ticking upward again. In Brazil and throughout the rest of the world, conservation advocates must be constantly on the alert to challenge threats to tropical forests.
If successful in achieving its stated goals, the Brazzaville summit will help make these efforts easier by allowing countries to share resources and experiences as they strive to slow and eventually halt deforestation. It could be a critical step toward preserving the global forests that house much of the planet’s biodiversity and serve as a buffer against catastrophic climate change.