Harare — Experts have called for a Congo Basin Climate Science Initiative to deploy the scientific underpinning of a forest protection plan. Attending a webinar ahead of the One Forest Summit, they outlined the importance of Congo Basin forests.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba will co-host the One Forest Summit in Libreville from March 1-2, and it is expected to support new opportunities for regional growth compatible with maintaining the basin’s crucial biodiversity and its crucial role in climate regulation.
Governments from within and outside the region will focus on research, sustainable products, and creative financing for climate and wildlife protection. These all rely on various sources of funding, including public and private, charitable, and commercial sources.
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network will host two days of science talks prior to the One Forest Summit to set the foundation for a synthesis of current Congo Basin research as well as a new, extensive research initiative to increase regional expertise and capacity.
Modeled on the successful large scale Biosphere atmosphere experiment in Amazonia the LBA Program, which was a collaboration between Brazil, the US. and Europe. Formerly begun in 1998 and led by Brazilian scientists, the LBA Program was a ten-year, 100 million dollar climate science investment.
“It revolutionised understanding of the Amazon rainforest and its role in the Earth system. The programme involved six years of intensive measurements and covered climatology, hydrology, ecology and biogeochemistry across an area of five and a half million square kilometer,” says Daniel Zarin, Executive Director of Forests & Climate Change, at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
It comprised 120 projects, 1700 participants, nearly a thousand of whom were Brazilians. This supported a new generation of Brazilian researchers and two decades later, Brazil is now acknowledged as the top country in the world for tropical forest monitoring and the leader in rainforest research.
The science from the LBA program informed and influenced numerous subsequent climate and forest policy and finance developments in Brazil, including the successful initiatives under the previous Lula administration that reduced deforestation by over 80% between 2004 and 2012.
“And of course, we’re hopeful because in President Lula’s words, Brazil is back and again aiming to lead on this agenda. We need the same kind of investment in science leadership in the Congo Basin, and there is quite literally no time to lose. This is really the critical message the science community needs to effectively convey. The Congo Basin region is critical natural infrastructure for climate regulation and biodiversity conservation,” he said.
Bila-Isia Inogwabini, a biodiversity specialist and Professor of Biodiversity Climatology and Climate Change and Ecology from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has created two protected areas in the Congo Basin and the classifying of the largest Ramsar site in the Congo.
During the webinar, he spoke about how important the Congo Basin forest is for communities that reside in Central Africa. According to him, close to 80 million people are totally dependent on the biodiversity and forest of the Congos. Also close to 300 million people one way or the other draw their resources from the Congo Basin.
That means that there are a lot of things that are tied in this region that are linked to both human resources, human survivors, community survivors and biodiversity as well.
“It is only one area where you could find that large species like primates have been discovered recently in this region … New large catfish species have been recently discovered. This means that even though we think that Congo Basin is known, there is a very long way to go so that we get the full knowledge of what is there,” he said.
Simon Lewis, an expert on Congo Basin peatlands from the University of Leeds and University College London says there are basically two large areas of continental tropical forests in the world, in the Amazon and in the Congo Basin and its contiguous forests.
“We know a lot about the Amazon because there are a lot of scientists there studying the Amazon and there are strong institutions backing it. That’s not the case at the moment in the Congo Basin, so it’s pretty unknown. But what we do know has been surprising and shows how vital it is to the maintenance of climate,” he said.
There’s around half a million hectares of deforestation in the Congo Basin a year, according to Lewis.
We know that fossil fuel use needs to dramatically decline and deforestation emissions dramatically decline if we are to meet 1.5 degrees celsius global agreements on climate change. But also this forest that’s left, this enormous 240,000,000 undisturbed forest is removing carbon from the atmosphere. Each hectare, each hundred meter by hundred meter patch of forest is removing around two and a half tons of carbon dioxide every single year.
There’s some evidence that rainfall generated from the Congo Basin rainforests, from evapo-transpiration trees, putting water back into the atmosphere, is traveling as far as the Sahel and the headwaters of the Nile and supporting the agriculture that around 300 million Africans rely on.
“And the other important aspect that I think is under recognised is the biodiversity in these forests. More than half the world species are in the world’s tropical forests, and a key part of that is the Congo Basin. And the animals are dispersing about 95% of all the trees in the Congo Basin,” says Lewis.
Lewis was also part of a team from Congo in the UK, who discovered the world’s largest tropical peatland in the heart of the Congo Basin. That’s around the size of England and Wales combined and storing around 29 billion tons of carbon. That’s equivalent to the emissions from the entire world for three years locked up in the in the peat.
The Congo River Basin is mysterious despite playing a crucial part in carbon storage and protecting vulnerable species like gorillas, chimps, and elephants. Many believe that these forests are more dangerous and impenetrable than their counterparts in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Bonaventure Sonké, a plant taxonomist and forest ecologist from the University Yaounde, Cameroon, who has discovered many new species, including new species of coffee, decided to unravel the mystery by going to the heart of these forests.
Since 1990, he says, they have been traveling through the forests of the Congo Basin with the aim of making an inventory of the plant biodiversity of these forests and understanding their functioning.
“Indeed, we adopt two complementary strategies. (i) general inventory missions during which we collect all flowering and/or fruiting plants. This approach has allowed us to collect approximately 35,500 herbarium specimens that I have distributed around the world,” he said.
It is during these missions that he collects the new species that he publishes.
Sonké participated in a study led by IRD in which they show that nearly 30% of vascular plants in tropical Africa are threatened with extinction. “This is alarming and we must take the bull by the horns so as not to lose this unique biodiversity,” he said during the webinar.
The Congo Basin Climate Science Initiative thus comes at the right time, and the international community must give it the means to achieve its ambitions, which are enormous and justified, he says, adding that these discoveries are proof that it is urgent that a global dynamic is put in place to save these threatened forests.
Emma Torres, a strategic coordinator with the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) and Vice-President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, says the resident elections both in Colombia and Brazil give us some hope for the Amazon as both governments have committed to reduce deforestation and to achieve zero deforestation for 2030.
Since the government of Brazil officially launched a bid for the north-eastern city of Belem to host the COP30 international climate summit in 2025, Torres says Brazil has been very active diplomatically.
“Brazil has also agreed to a strategic cooperation with both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia to establish a strategic alliance to mobilise funding to conserve this very significant globally, significant forest,” she said.
Torres says they have been honored to host the Amazon Science, the Science Panel for the Amazon, which is composed of over 240 scientists from the region and global partners, as well as indigenous scientists.
The creation of a Science Panel for the Congo Basin made up of scientists from the region and global partners who conduct research in the Congo Basin, with the aim of making an assessment of the state of the Congo Basin and contributing science and evidence-based inputs to policymaking to advance conservation and sustainable development in the region.
“The ambition is for this panel to hopefully issue its first report, at the time of COP28, that may take place in Belem, Brazil. So there is a very enthusiastic support from the scientists of the Amazon to also join their colleagues, scientists in the Congo, in this dialogue of science to conserve the most important tropical forests in the world,” said Torres.
The government of Brazil has recently appointed a Climate Change special climate Change envoy, former Foreign Minister of Foreign Relations of Brazil Mr. Figueredo and the Governor of Brazil will continue their dialogue with their partners in both Congo and Indonesia to really mobilise funding for conservation.