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Congo Basin: Making Forestry Sustainable
by Melissa Othman
Forest Service engineer Rick Toupin assesses selective felling practices in the Congo.
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Melissa Othman is the Africa Program coordinator, USDA Forest Service, International Programs, Washington, DC.

Until recently, the Congo's forests were relatively unknown to science. While we know that the Congo has the second largest intact tropical rainforest in the world and that many people depend on its spectacular biodiversity for their survival-there is so much we don't know.

However, our understanding of this complex ecosystem is changing, in part through the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), a program supported by the USDA Forest Service and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Congo is under siege, and CARPE is furthering our understanding of how this situation affects the natural resource base. Many lands in the Congo have been deforested and converted to agricultural uses. Remaining forests are threatened by conventional logging, particularly by logging roads and poor logging camp placement.

More and more logging roads are snaking into Africa's tropical forests, bringing thousands of workers and a cash economy to remote areas, partly through wildlife poaching. Increased access to remote areas has fueled the trade in wildlife, also known as bushmeat. The bushmeat trade depletes wildlife populations and threatens ecosystem health. Today, commercial hunters deliver a million pounds of bushmeat per year from the Congo basin alone.

Congolese loggers are learning about the benefits of reduced-impact logging--including better road planning, which reduces unwanted access to the Congo's vast tropical rainforest.

The ecological price is steep. Overharvest could not only drive species into extinction, but also disrupt complex interdependencies among plants and animals, endangering entire forest ecosystems. Elephants, for example, play a vital role in propagating several types of fruit-bearing trees. If elephants decline, so will these trees.

The bushmeat issue has opened a debate on conventional logging practices in central Africa. For the developing countries of the Congo basin, timber and game reserves are vital resources. Present and future generations will depend on their use and conservation through harvest practices that are sustainable.

Through CARPE, the USDA Forest Service promotes programs to improve forest management practices in the Congo, as do many other organizations in the region. Richard Toupin, a logging engineer in the Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Region, participated in a 2-week assessment of several logging companies operating in the Congo basin.

Part of the solution lies in reduced-impact logging. Only recently introduced to Africa, reduced-impact logging programs plan for minimal, sensibly placed roads, skid trails, and landings. These programs also introduce sound felling and bucking techniques. "Felling practices and techniques present the greatest opportunity for reducing logging impacts, as do skidding practices," observed Toupin. Sound planning in road and skid trail layout can greatly minimize access to forest areas.

Moreover, reduced-impact logging decreases impacts from road and landing construction and standardizes practices across companies, making operations more efficient. In the Congo, the planning process for forest management should include wildlife monitoring and hunting control, reducing the threat to native wildlife.

Reduced-impact logging has payoffs for all players. Through its use, private companies can make profitable short- and long-term forestry investments. Reduced-impact logging represents one more tool for governments to protect the long-term health and productivity of the land. Citizens can use forest resources while leaving a strong forest heritage for their children. Finally, conservation groups-and government agencies such as the USDA Forest Service-can help protect the Congo's native ecosystems and rich biodiversity far into the future.

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