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"Saving the Congo Basin: The Stakes, The Plan"

Statement of Chairman Ed Royce

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Washington, March 11, 2003 | comments
The following is the opening statement of Africa Subcommittee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) at this afternoon's hearing on saving the Congo Basin:
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The following is the opening statement of Africa Subcommittee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) at this afternoon's hearing on saving the Congo Basin:

"The tropical forests of Central Africa's Congo Basin, second in size only to those of the Amazon Basin, nearly seven times the size of California, are an important economic resource for an estimated 20 million people in the region. These forests also play a critical role in sustaining the environment --absorbing carbon dioxide, cleansing water, and holding soil. The Congo Basin contains the most diverse grouping of plants and animals in Africa, including rare and endangered species, such as the eastern lowland gorilla, mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, and the white rhino. These plants and animals are invaluable for so many reasons, including their genetic and biochemical information, which could spark advances in medical, agricultural, and industrial technology. The Congo Basin is a global treasure.

"But this treasure is threatened, as Congo Basin forests are coming under growing pressures. Ten years ago, these forests were virtually untouched. Today, logging operations, driven by a growing Asian demand for tropical hardwoods, are shrinking these forests. One estimate has logging taking out Congo Basin forest areas at a rate of twice the size of Rhode Island each and every year. Subsistence agriculture pressures, expanding with populations, are taking a toll. Meanwhile, the construction of logging roads and other developments, including the proliferation of small arms in the region, is putting intense hunting pressure on wildlife, or "bushmeat." At current kill levels, most species of apes and other primates, large antelope, and elephants will disappear from the Congo Basin, with some becoming extinct. Poorly managed logging and hunting threatens to do to the Congo Basin what it did to West Africa, which lost much of its forest and wildlife to over exploitation. Purged of wildlife, some Congo Basin forests already are eerily quiet "empty forests". If current deforestation and wildlife depletion rates are not reversed, the six countries of the Congo Basin most immediately, but also the world, will pay an incalculable economic, environmental, social and cultural price.

"Last September, Secretary of State Colin Powell launched the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) in Johannesburg. The CBFP, involving governments, international organizations, and businesses, is focused on eleven key landscapes in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo. It aims to support a network of national parks and protected areas and well-managed forestry concessions. The CBFP, building upon previous U.S. efforts, is working to combat illegal logging and poaching and other unsustainable practices, and to give local populations an economic stake in the preservation of the forests, including through the development of ecotourism. This initiative has received widespread applause, including from leading conservationists. Now everyone needs to deliver. Three NGOS --Conservation International, the World Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund-- deserve recognition for their early financial contributions to this effort.

"The most dramatic move toward conserving Congo Basin forests has been taken by Gabon. Last September, President Omar Bongo announced the creation of 13 national parks, representing over 10 percent of Gabon's surface area. Previously, Gabon had no national park system. These parks cover some of the least exploited tropical forests and coastal areas in Africa. The CBFP will back this initiative in hope of seeing that these are not just "paper parks." As with all conservation efforts, it is critical that the conservation commitment come from the ground.

"Conservation is not easy. What Americans today take for granted, Yosemite and Yellowstone and our magnificent national park system, took great foresight and political commitment to make a reality. It will be a major challenge to establish and maintain effective regimes to regulate logging and hunting in the Congo Basin. These are impoverished governments dependent upon revenues from natural resource exploitation. They are hindered by weak and poorly funded agencies. Corruption is a problem. Wildlife provides a relatively inexpensive source of needed protein. These countries lack local NGOs focused on conservation. Civil unrest and war has plagued several Congo Basin countries, among other hurdles facing conservation efforts.

"But there is reason for hope. With the Partnership and other efforts, we have built unprecedented momentum for the conservation of these forests. And we have lessons that can be learned from conservation efforts elsewhere, including failed efforts in West Africa. The U.S. must remain engaged, working with the African governments and others to maintain this momentum.

"In 1997, this Subcommittee held a hearing on managing Africa's natural resources. At that hearing, I said, "as much as some would like it to be, Africa cannot be one big preserve." With that hearing, we featured the U.S.-backed CAMPFIRE program, designed to give southern Africans an economic incentive to manage well their natural resources. Too many conservation efforts, cooked up far away, ignore the interests of average Africans.

"That day we heard from a witness who brings this kind of pragmatism to his work and who has done more than anyone else to bring attention to the stakes we all have in conserving the Congo Basin forests: Michael Fay. Among his many activities publicizing these magnificent forests and the threats they face has been his 440-day trek through the Congo Basin in 1999-2000, fully documented by National Geographic. Michael Fay recently worked with President Bongo to help bring about his landmark declaration of a new national park system. Especially for young people watching today, Michael Fay is a testament to the great difference in the world that one determined person can make.

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