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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

DR Congo becomes test case for true sustainable development

A range of conflicting interests is playing itself out again in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the vast Central African country that just came out of the most lethal of wars. The DRC, roughly the size of Western Europe, is blessed (or cursed) with a wealth of natural resources: minerals, petroleum, agricultural land, water, landscapes of an excessive beauty, and the world's second largest tropical rainforest that holds both hardwood and a unique reserve of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The question is whether Congo can develop economically while keeping its extremely valuable ecosystems intact.

The extractive industries are being developed in Congo en masse, but so are initiatives from highly developed countries who want to protect the rainforest. Over the coming decades, the country will therefor become a crucial test case showing whether 'sustainable development' is truly possible or a ultimately a mirage. Can the drama that played itself out in Indonesia, Malaysia or Brazil - the wholesale destruction of large stretches of rainforest in the name of modernity - be prevented in Congo? The challenges are huge, the potential rewards equally so.

Towards modernity

The Congo Wars, which have killed an estimated 4 million people, have had a devastating effect on the forests. Displacement and abject poverty have forced many of the country's 60 million inhabitants to prey on nature as a way to survive. Instead of utilizing forest resources in their traditional, sustainable way, the trade in bushmeat, poached treasure, illegally harvested wood, minerals and charcoal, have destroyed and fragmented large parts of the forest. Icons like the great apes, the white rhinoceros or the forest elephants are under threat.

After the successful democratic elections in 2006 and the return of stability, the formal economy began growing rapidly, even though corruption and generalised poverty remain the norm today. Despite the weakness of the state and its services, the Congolese are gradually beginning to find their normal ways again. This growing stability is also attracting foreign investors who are interested in the country's key natural resources.

First there is, of course, China. The People's Republic recently poured its largest African investment in Congo: $9 billion to develop thousands of kilometers of roads, railroads, schools, hospitals, universities and sport stadiums, in exchange for control over some key copper mines (more here and here). Besides being interested in minerals, China also wants to tap Congo's vast agricultural potential. A partly state-owned company recently bought (or leased) not less than 3 million hectares of land which it wants to use for the development of palm oil plantations (previous post).

Likewise, India, Brazil and several Arab oil states are pouring large sums of money into the country's agriculture, oil and mining sectors. Forestry is back on track too, making foreign companies and local elites wealthy, while 'opening up' the forest to further degradation.

Responding to the world food crisis, Congo's Ministry of Agriculture recently said the DRC can become a leading food exporter (even though it currently is a net food importer). In principle, the ministry is right: agricultural experts have shown that, if it uses its land in the most optimal way, the country can produce food for around 3 billion people. Add that Congo is becoming aware of its very large potential to produce biofuels (earlier post, and here), and we are looking at a scenario of extra environmental pressures:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Meanwhile, megaprojects like the plan to develop the Grand Inga dam - which would become the world's largest hydroelectric power plant rated at 40GW - prepare the country for a future of rapid industrial development.

To all this must be added Congo's very fast population growth (fertility rates are around 6.5 children per woman). Taking a medium growth scenario, Congo's population is projected to grow from its current 62 million inhabitants to 186 million in 2050 (check the UN Population Division's database, for alternative demographic scenarios).

Clearly, the stresses on Congo's environment become ever larger with every analysis of the socio-economic drivers that will determine its future development.

Dead or alive?

The question is whether these stresses can be counter-acted in such a way that the Congolese can be lifted out of poverty - the DRC is one of the planet's absolute poorest countries - while keeping the rainforest systems more or less intact. Today, a dead forest is worth more than a standing one. This is true for both the large industrial interests (logging, palm oil, mining) as for the local people who make a living from slash-and-burn based agriculture or who dwell in the forests. Stories of Pygmees selling vast swathes of their forests in exchange for a few bags of soap, are common.

So what can be done? Are there alternatives to the classic, modernistic development parcours that seems to be taking its course in Congo? Can deforestation be slowed? Perhaps.

The key to solving the problem could be in looking at the rainforests as systems which generate valuable ecosystem services that can be expressed in monetary terms. There are no markets yet valuing the immense biodiversity sustained by such a forest; capitalism does not put a price on the fresh water and rain that is produced by tropical forests. Clean air and oxygen produced by these trees are seen as free services.

One ecosystem service, however, is beginning to be 'marketable', namely the large amount of carbon stored in the standing trees. When these trees get cut down and burned to make way for agricultural land, a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. So the idea is to put a price on this carbon and to compensate countries and farmers who can prevent or reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

The question is: will the carbon price suffice? That remains to be seen. Another question is whether the carbon money will ever reach the people on the ground, or whether it will stick to the hands of corrupt governments and bureaucracies. Also, when the people living in or at the forest margin are no longer allowed to cut down trees for their survival, they will have to be given new types of jobs in economic sectors that have to be developed from scratch (ecotourism, agroforestry, etc). This is a tall order. Moreover, the risk exists that deforestation is simply displaced and left to continue elsewhere. Monitoring this will not be easy.

Lastly, examples of local people being chased away from their forests by force, in the name of conservation, are already legion. This approach, leading to the emergence of 'conservation refugees', is obviously not sustainable. Scientists have warned that simplistic schemes and projects which merely bank on a forest's carbon and which put conservation before people - without taking into account the social realities that lead to deforestation - could actually lead to more poverty, driving even more deforestation.

Congo Basin Forest Fund

To prevent these unwanted social and environmental effects, a comprehensive approach towards conservation and forest protection is needed - one that makes local people part of the equation. This is the goal set out by a fund created by the governments of Norway and the UK, which focuses specifically on the Congolese forest. The Congo Basin Forest Foundation (CBFF) was launched with a first action that deals with monitoring the state of the forest: a dedicated satellite camera will take high-resolution pictures of the rainforest resource.

The satellite pictures from the high resolution RALCam3 will allow us to monitor land use changes and deforestation, and point the way forward as to where interventions are most urgent. Once projects are under way, the satellite will check whether they effectively result in reduced deforestation.

The CBFF will identify and build up its project pipeline in a number of ways to achieve its strategic objectives and milestones, which consist of supporting projects that allow forest communities to build livelihoods consistent with conservation.

The Fund's principle approach will be through open, competitive bidding rounds. These will be open to eligible partners from the COMIFAC (Commission des Forêts d'Afrique Centrale) region, including governments, NGOs, civil society organisations, and other technical partners.

There are two proposed funding routes. Projects over US $100,000 will be managed directly by the African Development Bank, whilst projects below this threshold will be managed under an agreement between the bank and a fund management agent. Regardless of the size of project proposed, the CBFF is looking to approve projects which are innovative, of high quality; and will contribute to achieving the overall objectives of the Fund: to avoid deforestation and contribute to poverty alleviation in the Congo basin forests.

Open bidding is envisaged as an annual process run by the CBFF Secretariat in accordance with African Development Bank rules and procedures. In the early months of the Fund however, and to ensure a quick start to implementation, the UK Government, as the interim Secretariat of the CBFF invites proposals to reach the Secretariat by 1 August 2008.

The CBFF is different from other proposals aimed at reducing deforestation - such as carbon fund based approaches or schemes to trade the carbon stored in the forests on an international carbon market - in that it takes a 'bottom-up' approach: concrete anti-deforestation projects leading to alternative livelihoods for the many people who rely on the forest, are supported on a case by case basis.

It remains to be seen whether the CBFF can halt the logic that is now destroying the Congo forest. The Fund's financial resources (€136 million) are tiny compared with the potential profits that can be made in destructive sectors such as logging, mining and agriculture. But if its projects, however small, prove to be successful, Congo and other forest-rich countries at least have a chance to learn that the desire for modernity does not automatically have to mean the wholesale destruction of unique ecoystems.

Congo Basin Forest Fund.

Commission des Forêts d'Afrique Centrale.

UN Population Division: World Population Prospects - database containing different demographic scenarios at country level.

CongoForum: Congo kan exporteur van voedsel worden [Congo can become major food exporter] - June 11, 2008.

BBC: Space cameras to monitor forests - June 17, 2008.

Biopact: Scientists warn forest carbon payment schemes could increase poverty - December 07, 2007

Biopact: China 'opening up' Congo for minerals, bioenergy with massive $5 billion loan - September 20, 2007

Biopact: DR Congo: Chinese company to invest $1 billion in 3 million hectare oil palm plantation - July 28, 2007

Biopact: DR Congo debates its enormous biofuels potential - June 05, 2008

Biopact: New Congo government identifies bioenergy as priority for industrialisation - May 03, 2007

Biopact: International roundtable looks at building the world's largest dam in Congo - October 04, 2006


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