The biodiversity-rich Congo Basin contains 10,000 species of tropical plants, 400 species of mammals, 700 species of fish, and 1,000 species of birds. Included in the wildlife population are endangered creatures such as lowland and mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and forest elephants.
There is also an abundance of human diversity. The Congo Basin is home to more than 150 different ethnic groups, and like most forest-dependent peoples, these communities possess an incredible amount of knowledge about local biodiversity as well as the harvest and practical use of local forest products. This type of trade has the potential to support people’s livelihoods, providing a stable source of economic growth.
At the Rainforest Alliance, we recognize that community forestry is among the most sustainable forms of forest management, and evidence from our work in Latin America emphasizes that community forestry can be a working solution in lieu of deforestation. When locals are able to take control of their own lands, their actions tend to reflect the community’s best interests. An analysis of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve shows that deforestation rates in community forests where the Rainforest Alliance has worked were close to zero, while adjacent protected areas experienced forest conversion rates that were higher than regional averages.
The Congo Basin’s forests have stood for tens of thousands of years, with humans, flora and fauna, and wildlife all managing to coexist. A very recent example of successful sustainable forestry practices in this region comes to us from Cameroon’s Community Forestry Enterprises (CFE’s). Since revising its forestry law in 1994, Cameroon has established or recognized some 300 community forests, covering a total area of about 2.47 million acres (1 million ha).
Our work in this region lends support for CFE’s as they plan sustainable forest management activities, utilize best forestry practices, boost their business skills, and engage in strategies for value-added processing and penetrating premium markets for timber and other forest products. Since 2011, we have employed these very tactics in Cameroon, by focusing on two clusters of community forests which border protected areas in the country’s southern region. One cluster is adjacent to the Campo-Ma’an National Park and another is near the Dja Biosphere Reserve; both protected areas are home to a wide variety of endangered species.
To date, the Rainforest Alliance’s efforts have benefited 12 nearby communities, which are home to around 10,000 people. As a collective effort with these communities, we’ve laid the groundwork for sustainable methods of harvesting timber and non-timber forest products, while strengthening their internal governance and enabling them to operate in a competitive market environment. Additionally, we have facilitated the establishment of four local community-owned forest enterprises as a tool for pooling investments in equipment and social infrastructure, increasing negotiating power and improving access to markets. This work has been carried out in a participatory manner, in cooperation with two local NGOs.
The delivery of sawmills and the training of production teams are essential resources for which the freshly formed community forest enterprises. Portable sawmills are used to cut logs into lumber, typically juxtaposed next to the tree being felled. Pooled resources for the processing of wood also renders operational and maintenance costs more affordable for CFE’s, while allowing communities the chance to attain higher profit margins. First and foremost though, access to this type of processing equipment provides communities with options; it frees them from involvement with agents who may seek to take advantage by imposing unfavorable terms or by exploiting internal conflicts into unilateral and often illegal operations which tend to lack consent from the whole community.
Despite encountering challenging conditions, Cameroon’s CFE’s have made significant progress over the past five years. As a result of our support, they’ve approved management plans that cover a total of 74,000 acres (30,000 ha), forged business alliances with buyers, and communities have signed sales contracts—a major step forward for community forests in the region. And through our work in community forestry, those 10,000 species of tropical plants, 400 species of mammals, 700 species of fish, and 1,000 species of birds mentioned earlier are closer to safety.