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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

May 31, 2013

Air Date: May 31, 2013



Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 1 / Alex Chadwick and Christopher Johnson

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A program called REDD could be the fastest, least expensive way to stall global warming. REDD is a scheme that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation by preserving trees. Award-winning correspondent Alex Chadwick and producer Christopher Johnson travel to the Congo Basin to investigate the high stakes of protecting the carbon-rich forest, the wildlife, and people who live there. (12:30)

Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 2 / Alex Chadwick and Christopher Johnson

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Living on Earth’s journey to the Congo Basin, with Alex Chadwick and Christopher Johnson, continues. Our special report looks at the promises and pitfalls of climate policy, and how REDD might protect the world’s second largest forest. (19:00)

Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 3 / Alex Chadwick and Christopher Johnson

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Living on Earth’s special report on REDD and the Congo Basin concludes. There’s optimism that REDD could help preserve the carbon in the trees and, perhaps, alleviate the poverty of the nation’s people. (19:00)

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Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 1

Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary leader of the village of forest village of Ngoyla in Cameroon has this question for Western nations contemplating buying carbon credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions: 'What are you waiting for?' (Photo: Alex Chadwick)

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Scientists and diplomats with their climate change conferences seldom get to a part of the world that is central to any discussion about carbon: Africa…and especially the Congo Basin.

That is where Living on Earth sent reporter Alex Chadwick – you may know him as the former chief correspondent for the National Geographic Radio Expeditions series on NPR. Alex, welcome to the show. And, what did you find?

CHADWICK: Thanks, Steve – you know, the assignment here is to try to figure out how the big climate policy called REDD –

CURWOOD: Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

CHADWICK: That is the one – so how would that might work in Africa, and really in the Congo Basin, which holds an enormous amount of the world’s remaining tropical forest.

CURWOOD: Big and carbon-rich. So where do you begin?

CHADWICK: Well, the carbon story is everywhere – I got my first interview for this actually not far from where I live in Los Angeles. But let’s start here with something someone told me once I actually did get to the Congo Basin:


CHADWICK: I heard this story from his majesty Chief Mpono Pierre, in the village of Ngoyla, just south of the Dja River in eastern Cameroon.


CHADWICK: About 100-years ago – when Germany claimed a lot of this territory, a patrol fleeing a battle in Congo followed a trail north. One soldier was badly wounded; the patrol took shelter with some local people. The man died, the patrol buried him and moved on. It left behind a diary, a German flag, and a plea to the family that had helped: remain here, please, wait.


CHADWICK: In some way, the story of REDD in the Congo Basin is the story of what happened to that family, the German flag and the diary. That’s the story that we’re going to tell, and we’re going to begin in the forest of Ngoyla.


CHADWICK: It’s like nature’s Disneyland. We recorded this near what had been a small cluster of Baka people – pygmies. They’ve abandoned this site, or been chased away. We’re in a forest space they had cleared for a shrine. We’re staying quiet, recording. It’s dawn.

The Baka sacred clearing, with a small, woven figure toward the rear. Baka communities throughout the Congo Basin typically spend part of the year living nomadically in the forest, and part living in established settlements at the forest edge. Often referred to as pygmies for their short stature, many Baka groups have intermarried with outsiders to the point where there is little observable difference between them and others. (Photo: Alex Chadwick)


JOHNSON: Wow…what was that?

CHADWICK: That’s my friend and producer, Christopher Johnson, and more from him later.

JOHNSON: That was so cool.

CHADWICK: There are many ideas about what to do with all this forest.

BAKARY: If I were the head of state in this country I would have advocated strongly to continue to destroy the forest.

CHADWICK: A government official in Cameroon’s capitol, Yaounde. We’d spoken to him about this forest several days earlier.

BAKARY: Who are destroying the forest in Cameroon? The Europeans! Ameri-…

CHADWICK: The timber companies

BAKARY: Yeah. The timber companies. You Americans, the most richest country on earth, the most powerful country on earth, you used to have lot of forests in your own cities and country. Where is your forest? You destroy it. Now you come in Cameroon and you say, ‘Oh, guy, stop destroying the forest.’ Then why? Why don’t you want us to destroy our own forest to do the same thing that you did?

CHADWICK: Issa Tchroma Bakary, Minister of Communication, and skilled at it, the ‘cut-it-down’ rant a caricature, he says. But what lies behind it – poverty, need, isolation, crippled lives – those are real, and especially in forest communities.


CHADWICK: Congo forest feels eternal, but is not. It’s been this way for about ten thousand years, slowly reestablishing itself after the passing of the last ice age. Indonesian forests are much older.


CHADWICK: Congo forest grows in a vast, wet basin that spreads across the Central African plateau – 700,000 square miles. It is the second largest forest in the world, the Amazon is bigger, but Congo is far less altered, far more ‘natural’.


CHADWICK: It is wet – RAINforest – though rains vary. One area can get 40 feet in a year; others are almost too dry.


CHADWICK: But nowhere else has this wildlife.


CHADWICK: Congo Basin still shelters poster species – and many of them – with the critter charisma to flutter conservation hearts around the world, which they do. The Ngoyla-Mintom Forest is in the Central Africa, but just barely. It’s on the northwest rim of the Congo Basin. Christopher and I first learned about this forest from a California engineer and business consultant who retired early to follow a passion. His name is…

JOHNSON: Mike Korchinsky.

KORCHINSKY: How often do you get an opportunity to participate in saving two million acres of primary rainforest? If you’re an animal lover like I am, the prospect of protecting habitat for thousands of lowland gorillas and chimpanzees and elephants was too much to pass up.


CHADWICK: This is early summer, at an outdoor café in Venice, the LA beach town. Mike is looking for money – $10 million dollars – to try to buy his way into the carbon rights of the Ngoyla-Mintom forest. He doesn’t have much time. He’s just been in Cameroon, at the Ministry of Forests, and he saw the timber bids for this forest.

KORCHINSKY: Unfortunately, they were in middle of process. So they told us that they couldn’t delay that process indefinitely, and they gave us a month to find the money to make a counter proposal based on the potential for REDD.

CHADWICK: REDD – the climate change, forest-carbon idea. Living on Earth listeners have heard this – here’s a reminder in a simple form, and let’s go back to that forest for a moment.


JOHNSON: It’s full of life…and carbon. Cutting trees releases global-warming greenhouse gases – big deforestation is a big contributor of carbon dioxide, or CO2. So, pay places with lots of forests to keep them intact. These carbon forest keepers can then sell their carbon savings as atmospheric offsets to countries and companies with too many emissions.

CHADWICK: In theory, the atmosphere gets less CO2. And, for giving up or deferring their forest-related development opportunities, countries with a lot of forest get money. Possibly billions and many billions.

JOHNSON: Alex, conservationists are gaga for REDD: it reduces CO2; it saves threatened habitat and wildlife; it relieves some of the dire poverty that helps drive deforestation. One policy – many benefits.

CHADWICK: Okay – we’re back with Mike Korchinsky – conservationist and would-be REDD investor.

KORCHINSKY: I was in Cameroon for about a month. I spent three weeks in the forest first to understand what the carbon value of the forest potentially was, and then to get a sense of the biodiversity, and whether or not this place was really a special place to be preserved. And then I went and spent a week in the capitol, with the government, trying to understand their position and try to convince them that they should make a stay of execution if you like, on the forest, and give me an opportunity to rally some financing around a REDD project. Of course it’s an intimidating prospect; I’ve never raised ten million dollars in a month before, so I didn’t know enough to know whether I could or couldn’t do it.

CHADWICK: Mike, remember, retired at age 38 – he knows money people. But this deadline, 30 days; it could take that long just to explain REDD. He needs a special set of money people, the kind with sharpened teeth.

JOHNSON: That’s true, and those people live over in Europe, where carbon trading is already active. French bankers ask to see him. He flies to London, stays overnight, holds one day of meetings – and sells out his entire ten million dollar offering. He doesn’t have to explain the money end of REDD – they already know.

KORCHINSKY: Of course foresters are very good at walking into forests and determining the value of a forest from a timber standpoint, and carbon isn’t that different. About 45 percent of the weight of tree is carbon. So, if you can estimate the weight of a forest you can estimate the number of tons of CO2 that you’d be able to sell. And then you look at the global price, which has ranged dramatically…has never really gone below three dollars a ton of CO2 emission reduction. So, on the basis you can figure out what you think the forest would generate on an annual basis from REDD.

CHADWICK: And that dollar figure is?

KORCHINSKY: Well, I think my estimates are that we’ll be able to generate at least ten million dollars a year, and potentially quite a bit more.

JOHNSON: Yeah, a lot more. For many people, REDD is less about climate than about money.

CHADWICK: We’ll note here that funding is one reason it could take a month to explain REDD. Some groups and governments want it run and regulated by international public agencies like the UN, and paid for by the rich countries, with taxes.

JOHNSON: Others argue that approach is too slow, too cumbersome and too expensive. Private markets can achieve climate goals much better.

CHADWICK: But for everyone chasing the idea of REDD, I have one more question for Mike Korchinsky:

But so much of REDD is unsettled; you don’t know what’s going to happen.

KORCHINSKY: No, but any venture investor he knows what’s going to happen in any investment he makes is probably certifiably mad, I think. There is a thing called risk and return, and that risk and return is both financial and environmental. If we wait until all the rules are in place, at least this forest, it will be too late.


CHADWICK: So that’s what set us off for Cameroon, a country about the size of California in Central-West Africa.


JOHNSON: The capitol, Yaounde, is wild over today’s soccer match – Cameroon against Togo.

CHADWICK: If you picture Africa like a fist bent inward, Cameroon would be right where the wrist meets the hand.

JOHNSON: Cameroon facts: it’s got almost 20 million people – split between city and country – many of them are farmers. It’s poor: unemployment, 30 percent; poverty almost 50 percent; life expectancy – 54-years-old.

CHADWICK: But people here never had a civil war, they don’t seem to hate each other or their neighbors. They muddle along, thinking things might get better – they are a recognizable version of us.

JOHNSON: We spend days filing for permits. The Minister of Communication – Mr. ‘go ahead and cut the forest?’ – he never does grant us one.

CHADWICK: We are determined to see the forest Mike Korchinsky described, and to see how people there live – permit or no. And so, armed with an air of innocence, we rent a car to take us 250 miles east, out of Yaounde and into the wild lands. I know driving around Central Africa can be dicey; I’ve been stopped at gunpoint several times.

But now we pass almost unnoticed. The road devolves in stages of decay, but it brings us safely at last to the Dja River. On the other side is the Ngoyla-Mintom forest, home to Mike Korchinsky’s beloved wildlife, and maybe a fortune in carbon…

[MUSIC: Kanda Bongo Man: “Liza” from Soukous In Central Park (Rykodisc 1993)]

CURWOOD: We’ll be back to Alex Chadwick in Africa in just a moment. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

Related links:
- Learn more about Congo's REDD plan at the UN's official site
- The World Resources Institute hosted a workshop for indigenous communities and foregrounded their concerns in this pape
- Check our LOE's coverage of REDD in Brazil.
- Click here for more LOE REDD coverage.

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Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 2

Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary leader of the village of forest village of Ngoyla in Cameroon has this question for Western nations contemplating buying carbon credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions: 'What are you waiting for?' (Photo: Alex Chadwick)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And we’re back in Cameroon and the Congo Basin where reporter Alex Chadwick is trying to get to a small village beside a great forest, a place that may be a factor in the climate change equation.

CHADWICK: The ferry-barge that links the village of Ngoyla to the outside world is on the opposite bank, and in no hurry to come get us. Time passes. River flies cluster on ankles and feet; other waiting travelers begin dabbing gasoline on bare skin; it’s better than getting bitten. At last the ferry-barge pushes off from the other shore and begins its slow passage. No one bothers us for a permit.


CHADWICK: Maybe you can start to hear the water flowing past the stern of the ferry. It’s on its way across the river. It’s a square, floating platform, maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. It’s attached to a cable that runs from shore to shore, probably 20 feet up in the air. It’s got two cables from the ferry run to the long stretcher cable, and that’s what keeps the ferry in operation. The river here is about 100 yards across, and it flows very quickly.


CHADWICK: A ferryboat driven by current is not simply a means to cross open water; it conveys you into the past at the pace of life in a village. An outsider adjusts to this bucolic relic.


JOHNSON: This road we’re on passes clusters of mud brick homes, fields of papaya, plantains, cassava. There aren’t many people…until Ngoyla.


CHADWICK: The village at the edge of the forest. This is rural, but it’s more active than any place we’ve seen for hours. Some people have generators for power, so there is this composition of mud-brick, corrugated roof and satellite dish. And young men pass by buzzing on motorbikes.


JOSEPH: I am the District Officer. My name is Obati Oncong Joseph.

JOHNSON: Now, Ngoyla has a mayor, but this guy – the District Officer – he’s the real big shot. The government owns the forest in Cameroon, and he? He’s the government’s man.

JOSEPH: Those who are living here, everything they eat, everything they do, medical care, is coming from the forest. The forest is very, very important for the people who are living here. It is also the forest that gives land for the people to have their – for people to farm. Everything here is coming from the forest.


CHADWICK: Christopher’s been over talking to the Mayor…what did he say?

JOHNSON: His name is Bantal Alphonse. He’s one of the town’s few elected officials. He told me a little bit about Ngoyla. He said there are about 6,000 people here, two major ethnic groups: the Gjim and the Baka. And if you walk around town, you’ll see a lot of people carrying machetes – men and boys. The mayor told me that they use those machetes to hack out their living. They grow plantains, cocoa and bananas. Ngoyla’s number one problem: poverty. This town is desperate for electricity, for running water, for cell phones, and for more teachers. And Mayor Alphonse says, ‘If carbon is the answer to Ngoyla’s problems, let’s make a deal…and fast.’

CHADWICK: You know, as we’ve come along down the road from the main capitol, 6,000 people is actually a pretty substantial community, for at least this region of Cameroon. We see there are other dirt roads leading off from here, there’s a little church over there.


JOHNSON: Lots of chickens…

CHADWICK: Lots of yard chickens. And we’re going to go see the women’s group?

JOHNSON: Yeah, let’s go, they’re right down the road here.



CHADWICK: Madame Mewol Jacquette…


CHADWICK: Invites us into her home, the front room a large space, comfortable with almost 20 ladies from the Ngoyla Women’s Association, each in an elegant print dress, many with a matching head wrap. I wish I had a clean shirt.


CHADWICK: You don’t need French to get it that Madame Jacquette is unhappy with the state of events here. Ngoyla needs phones, electricity, schools.


JOHNSON: And she told us she has ten children; eight of her kids have been away to school and they’ve come back; none of them can find a job in Ngoyla.


CHADWICK: We spend four days in Ngoyla. The nearby forest is what Mike Korchinsky promised. The Ngoyla–Mintom conservation area is about 3,000 square miles, so vast it’s like looking at the ocean. The trees are densely packed and enormous carbon columns.


CHADWICK: We interview farmers and foresters and confirm what the officials tell us…this place is poor. And if the villagers can’t exploit the forest, it’s going to stay that way. It’s just too remote, and there’s nothing else to develop. A farmers market opens at dawn on a Saturday in an area by the drooping town pavilion; four vendors offer a few wretched samples of local goods; a small boy has several yams on the bare earth. In half an hour, the dozen browsers who had come by are gone, and the vendors are quitting, too.



CHADWICK: On the ferry, returning to the capital for an important interview, I’m mashing UN climate policy and carbon wealth and life in a forest village. Here are some of the parts:


CHADWICK: In Cameroon, trees are plentiful and money is scarce. Timber is the number two export. It was a real sacrifice to set aside Ngoyla-Mintom for conservation. Cameroon expected some green eco-development money for communities – like a timber company would offer, but the conservation money never came.

Finally, officials moved to open this conservation forest to loggers. But, REDD was just then emerging as the favored policy option of climate negotiators, and the global recession was devaluing timber prices.

JOHNSON: And so in the months that followed, our California investor, Mike Korchinsky came to Yaounde with his REDD bid. South African investors made another REDD offer. And the World Bank and the World Wildlife Fund are working together on a REDD proposal.


CHADWICK: And suddenly Cameroon is rethinking what to do again.

NGOLLE-NGOLLE: My name is Elvis Ngolle-Ngolle. I am the Minister of Forestry and Wildlife, meaning I’m in charge of all the tress and the wildlife.

JOHNSON: Elvis Ngolle-Ngolle: married to an American; studied in the US for 11 years; used to listen to public radio.

CHADWICK: And maybe that’s why he personally waived the 2,000-dollar fee that someone wanted to charge us for recording in the forest. Elvis is the person who decides what happens with the forests of Cameroon and REDD.

Children starting to school in the village of Ngoyla, Cameroon, in the northern Congo Basin. Experts estimate the carbon content of the forest at 46 billion tons. Community leaders hope some of that value can answer the desperate need for electricity, roads, and a bridge over a local river that would more easily connect them to the outside world. (Photo: Alex Chadwick)

NGOLLE-NGOLLE: If the people see that their conditions of living are improving in terms of education, health, in terms of infrastructure development, in terms of opportunities for employment. I think that they will know that the efforts are meaningful to them, and are relevant to them.

CHADWICK: Are you at all concerned that this is another form of selling off a part of Africa to other people to use to solve their problems?

NGOLLE-NGOLLE: Africa has come of age, Africa has come out of its – of its, I don’t want to say grudge against colonialism. I think Africans have grown up to the point where they believe in looking forward, and not looking backwards. I think the history colonialism and colonial exploitation is there, but it’s looked upon by the present generation of African leaders as, ‘Well, that is an original sin, but we must go ahead, we must continue,’ and to not worry about those who want to exploit you and exploit you to extinction.

CHADWICK: The Ministry of Forest and Wildlife has done well managing timber exports, but it’s nothing compared to what a REDD carbon market might bring. I worked through one investment prospectus. It projects a carbon value for Ngoyla-Mintom of more than seven billion dollars.

JOHNSON: Now, Alex, you know officials never want to discuss numbers in public. But Minister Ngolle-Ngolle didn’t disagree with the figure you gave him – except that maybe it isn’t high enough.

NGOLLE-NGOLLE: You’ve used the figure of seven billion. I’ve heard of figures way more than that. I think the Net Bank, the South African Net Bank came the other day and talked in terms of hundreds, I think it was somewhere around 200 billion. I think if it’s seven billion, then that’s fine. But if it’s more than seven million, then why not?

The people will be more than happy if they can be told the best value for that pristine forest is more than they ever imagined, I think that will be great. On the entire continent of Africa, the Congo Basin forest is the only remaining contiguous forest mass that is remaining and that has value for the fight against climate change. And whatever we can derive in terms of carbon credits is the Congo Basin forest mass – so there is a huge economic value in ensuring that forest remains intact.

CHADWICK: REDD, the Congo Basin forest, money. We’re leaving Cameroon for elsewhere in the Congo Basin. But I’ve got this flashback to the Ngoyla forest, and our town, and our encounter with Madame Mewol Jacquette.


CHADWICK: She doesn’t romanticize Ngoyla’s rustic river ferry – as I did – now I realize, she hates it.


CHADWICK: It’s a symbol, sure, but not of an earlier, more authentic human spirit. To Ngoyla, the ferry means impotence and isolation.


JOHNSON: And if REDD and carbon policy and climate change get her a bridge, she’s all for it. But, if the timber companies can do it – that’s okay, too.

CHADWICK: The Minister of Forests and Wildlife, Mr. Ngolle-Ngolle, told us he’s never been to Ngoyla. He’s waiting to go, he says, until he has something to tell them. Soon, he hopes. But I would guess that he already knows about Madame Jacquette, and what she is expecting. What he and REDD are going to have to deliver. But…when?

[MUSIC: Papa Wemba “Aladji” from Et Viva La Musica (Sonodisc 1994)]


CHADWICK: Whatever happens in Cameroon, the real big question of the Congo Basin Forest is going to be decided here: this is the Democratic Republic if Congo, and the city of Kinshasa. The Congo Basin is enormous; a huge amount of forest, but almost all of it is in this country.


CHADWICK: Kinshasa calls itself the largest French-speaking city in the world, seven-and-a-half million people.

JOHNSON: If you count Paris’s whole metro area, it has more.

CHADWICK: But Paris doesn’t lie a few degrees south of the equator, hot and rainy, busy, poor, dangerous to walk around.

JOHNSON: Not as dangerous as eastern Congo, site of what’s called Africa’s World War. The numbers vary: four million dead, five million dead, a 20-year conflict that still runs like a low-grade fever. Neighbor armies, militias, outsiders with greed and guns come to kill, rape and loot.

CHADWICK: Congo is too rich in resources – minerals, gold, timber – for the outsiders to leave. Congo is too poor in civil development, maybe too corrupt, to drive them out. An actual government has been slowly reasserting itself in the last few years, but maybe it’s more an experiment than a process.

JOHNSON: One healthy sign: many international aid agencies are no longer too scared to work here; another: there is money coming in. The Chinese are here very eagerly.

CHADWICK: We went to see a man named John Flynn. He’s an American. He works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and he runs a program called the Central African Regional Program for the Environment. They fund a lot of green conservation projects, they’re trying to figure out how to conserve the forest, how to manage the forest, how to keep the wildlife.


CHADWICK: What would you say the rate of deforestation is in the Congo Basin?

FLYNN: The rate of deforestation from at least1990 to 2000 is about one point five percent of the total canopy. And that’s less than point one five percent per year.

CHADWICK: Isn’t that a fairly low rate of deforestation?

FLYNN: It’s by far the lowest of any forested region of the world, including even the temperate forest. Really the principal cause of deforestation is small-scale farming – this is very small-scale, with small-scale villagers – and people harvesting wood for fuel, for charcoal and firewood.

CHADWICK: This is key to understanding carbon and the Congo Basin. A lot of people cut a little forest for small farms but there is hardly any commercial use, no logging. There is no big local market for timber, and it costs too much to get logs out of here to sell internationally. The forest is not being cut, which is the good news, also in some way the bad news.

JOHNSON: First, the good: we’re back with the American, John Flynn, who works for USAID, which funds the Central African Regional Program for the Environment, CARPE.

CHADWICK: Is it an irony that the Democratic Republic of Congo has been ignored that now, suddenly it has potentially an enormous resource?

FLYNN: Not only an enormous resource, but it puts the Congo on world stage in a way it hasn’t really been in a positive way in its entire history. These are critical days ahead of us, ahead of this region, ahead of this country, ahead of maybe the entire humanity if I could be a little dramatic. Because what’s decided here and how things work over the next few years may well determine the future of our planet.

CHADWICK: I made notes over conversations I’ve had with you in the last couple of days – I went back and looked at them – you told me the danger of REDD is that it will provide disincentives.

FLYNN: Any time you have a massive shift of the ground, it creates a lot of distortions in the system that’s not ready for all this attention yet. And one of my concerns has been that Central Africa needs time to get ready for this system, whatever it might be.

At the edge of a forest clearing in southeast Cameroon, a palm frond curtain marks the entrance to a sacred site of the traditional Baka people. This site is near an abandoned village. (Photo: Alex Chadwick)

JOHNSON: Remember the ‘not cutting the forest equals bad news’ flag from a moment ago? Here’s how a history of benign forestry could be bad for Congo:

CHADWICK: Your world fundamental goal is cut ongoing carbon emissions. Your REDD method is pay to reduce deforestation. So, look: Brazil cuts a lot of trees; it qualifies for big payments that actually will effect emissions in the atmosphere, which is what you want. And Congo cuts very few trees, so it qualifies for…what?


JOHNSON: UN climate negotiators have debated this for a while and more or less conclude that paying Brazil for bad behavior, and ignoring Congo’s good behavior makes no sense. They’re working on it.

FLYNN: Something like this, we have to be thinking very long term.

CHADWICK: John Flynn, the USAID man in Kinshasa.

FLYNN: We’re not used to thinking long term in the United States, and we’re certainly not thinking long term most of the time in Africa. So it’s ushering in a whole new way of doing business, a whole new light on this region that’s been kind of shrouded. And I think it’s going to be a positive thing, but we have to be careful.

CHADWICK: That’s John Flynn, a USAID official working in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If he’s right about our human aversion to long-term thinking, and climate is all long term, maybe – maybe nothing happens until climate becomes crisis.

[MUSIC: Papa Wemba “Bravo Cathy” from Et La Musica Viva (Sonodisc 1994)]

CURWOOD: This is a special report on REDD and the Congo Basin from Alex Chadwick. Our story on how climate change policy could work in the world’s second largest tropical forest continues in a minute. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from The Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI – Public Radio International.

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Preserving the Congo Basin’s Trees, Part 3

Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary leader of the village of forest village of Ngoyla in Cameroon has this question for Western nations contemplating buying carbon credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions: 'What are you waiting for?' (Photo: Alex Chadwick)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If UN climate policy is going to cut carbon emissions by cutting deforestation, it’s going to have to work in the huge, carbon-rich forests of Central Africa and the Congo Basin. We continue now with our report from Alex Chadwick, who went to Kinshasa, the capitol of the largest country there, the Democratic Republic of Congo.


CHADWICK: It is hard remaining positive in Kinshasa. A foreign adviser to the government told this story. Someone in the Ministry of Environment wanted to hold a mini-conference with other ministries. He wrote a letter of invitation and got it approved. But he couldn’t send it out because there was no paper for the printer.

When another foreigner finally produced a ream, the letters still couldn’t be delivered because there was no gas for the car. He couldn’t just mail it, of course – Congo doesn’t have a functioning postal service.

CREIGHTON: Democratic Republic of Congo has enormous needs and ambitions to develop a stable and more prosperous economy.

JOHNSON: That American voice belongs to an official representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

CHADWICK: He’s a deeply experienced adviser to World Wildlife Fund International, and with many years in Africa, and Ken Creighton is an actual delegate – one of several, and not the leader he is quick to note – still, a delegate to the UN climate talks for DR Congo.

CHADWICK: Is there a number that you could put on the carbon value of the forests of Democratic Republic of Congo?

CREIGHTON: Well, it’s basically immense. It’s calculated in terms of literally hundreds of billions of tons of carbon. Probably were it all to disappear in a short period, it represents decades worth of global emissions from all other sources.

JOHNSON: Consider those numbers, just for a minute. Now, think about the carbon calculations that policy makers apply when looking at Congo.

CHADWICK: Billions of tons of carbon, dangerous for the atmosphere. So pay Congo Basin countries to maintain their forest…but pay them what? There is a lot of money in REDD, even though we don’t know exactly what the market will be when — and if —the details get settled.

JOHNSON: OK, back to Ken Creighton.

CREIGHTON: Well, on a global level, in order to actually begin concrete actions and compensation for reducing emissions will require somewhere in the range between 15 and 25 billion dollars between now and 2015.

CHADWICK: What people know about DR Congo is: there’s a war going on; DR Congo can’t control it own physical limits of its own country; it has a reputation for enormous corruption. And the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is saying, ‘We need to send these people a lot of money…a lot of money.’

KC: Well, I think the basis of that is we cannot achieve our goals in terms of reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change unless we can find a solution to this second largest block of tropical forest on the planet.


CHADWICK: A forest adviser in Kinshasa shows me a satellite map of a forest area the size of South Carolina. It includes the last refuge of what is thought to be humankind’s nearest evolutionary ape, the bonobo chimpanzee.

The image is all dark green with tree canopy, and there are rivers, and a few tiny clearings. It looks like total wilderness – but three-quarters of a million people live there, the adviser says. And this is the most important thing I learn in the Congo Basin. The vast forests, the ones conservationists would sanctify and climate scientists seal off are home to many, many people…millions of them.


JOHNSON: The Baka have been in the Congo Basin forever, living carbon-neutral and with abundant wildlife.


JOHNSON: This interview is from a small Baka community in Cameroon, but Baka ignore most political boundaries. This man, Menyango Daniel, has been leader of this group for 40 years.


JOHNSON: We know some outsiders want to save the forest, he says. The forest is why we live here. It’s everything.

CHADWICK: Is the weather changing? Do the weather conditions change, is the rain changing?


JOHNSON: Menyango Daniel says, many things have changed. Now, he says, we have to go a very long way to hunt.


JOHNSON: I used to know when to sow my garden to avoid the heavy rains, Menyango Daniel explains, now those rains come in planting season.

CHADWICK: The fate of the forest turns out to be less about climate and carbon and more about the people who live there, who’ve always lived there, and will go on living there. In Congo, they’re eating away at the forest very slowly. With help, they can learn to farm more sustainably. But they are not going away, and any plan to reduce forest emissions that doesn’t include them will fail.


CHADWICK: There’s a large green space in the downtown part of Kinshasa, the city botanical garden. It’s where we meet the DRC Minister for Environment, Jose Endundo.


VOICEOVER: For many centuries, the Congolese people have been protecting the forest. The process of redistributing the money will be done at the appropriate time. We are involved in very important negotiations. We are working with other countries to reach an agreement, and to see how we can benefit from this.

CHADWICK: I spoke to a man today who represents civil society, groups across the country, conservation groups. He said he had a question for you – will the money go to the Treasury, or will it go to the communities?


VOICEOVER: I will be very frank with you! It is not good that developed countries, especially Western countries, should say there is bad governance here and use that as an excuse not to fund REDD.

You are the ones who made the pollution from factories, airline traffic and energy production. We don’t ask you how you use the money you got from pollution activities. It’s not fair for you to ask us how are you going to use this money from REDD, we should concentrate on how we can fix this problem together.

CHADWICK: Many people don’t like REDD because they’re afraid the West will just pay you for carbon credits and go on polluting.


VOICEOVER: No, No, No, No, No, No… I don’t share your opinion. We are all in the same boat. We have to limit temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees change. The ideal goal would be to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 350 parts per million on a global scale. We must agree on these conditions because we are all in the same boat.

Studies show that poor countries will be the most affected. So, regarding the responsibility of the DRC, we know very well what we have to do. Congo is among the richest countries in the world in natural resources and biodiversity; we have half the water reserve in Africa and half the forests in Africa and many other resources.

We know what we have and we are not going to miss this opportunity to benefit from that. And we are sure that Congo is going to play an important role. Congo cannot miss this historic chance to benefit from that richness. Africa as a whole would benefit, as well.

CHADWICK: Jose Endundo, minister of the Environment for the Democratic Republic of Congo, speaking with us at a park in downtown Kinshasa.


CHADWICK: Wildlife conservationist and carbon-investor Mike Korchinsky is still waiting to hear about his ten million dollar REDD bid for the Ngoyla-Mintom forest in Cameroon. He had thought he would win that bid; he’s less sure now, but more confident that Ngoyla-Mintom will become a REDD forest, with protections for the carbon, and the wildlife, and the people who live there.

KORCHINSKY: Those forests are now an advantage that those people who live with wildlife and live in these remote areas have over the rest of us, because they still have forests and that forest is now of value in what the emerging carbon market-place.

Twelve months ago that was an idea that was being hypothesized—that these forests would have value. Today it looks like a runaway train in a sense, in that now all the climate conversations involve this idea of forests or avoided deforestation as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

JOHNSON: An international conservation expert agrees. REDD, he told us, isn’t ecotourism. This is real money—this is going to make a difference.


CHADWICK: John Flynn, of the Central African environment program, is more skeptical of REDD’s potential. But he sounds remarkably confident about prospects for Kinshasa—corrupt, he says, maddening, and the best place to see what is going to happen in Central Africa.

FLYNN: It’s a desperately poor country, and this whole region is desperately poor for so many reasons. It’s rich in resources, but the people among the poorest in the world. The DRC has among greatest malnourishment rate of anywhere in the world. So it’s going to be tempting when people put those kind of numbers around.

But the one thing I can say about the region is that they’re used to people flim – you know, coming in and making big promises, and they’ve been disappointed for a hundred years. And they’re skeptical and they’re cynical about these outsiders. So I think that might serve them well actually at some level.


CHADWICK: About one hundred years ago in the dense Congo forest of southeast Cameroon, a German military patrol marched away from a clearing that would become the village of Ngoyla. The soldiers left gifts with a family that had helped them – a diary and a German flag – and they asked the family to wait…


CHADWICK: Over the years, the diary has gone missing. The meaning behind the flag was difficult for the family to discern, but the value of woven material was not. They cut it up for loincloths.


CHADWICK: The forest remains and the descendants of Ngoyla’s founders…and His Majesty Chief Mpono Pierre who told us this story.


CHADWICK: We sit in the shade of a porch outside his small, neat mud-brick home at the southern end of the village. We are waiting, he says. He’s an older man who remains tall and lean. He wears a military style jacket of pressed khaki linen; he holds a totem of office in his lap, a long dried-grass whisk.

His Majesty Chief Mpono Pierre, hereditary chief of the village of Ngoyla, Cameroon. (Photo: Alex Chadwick)


CHADWICK: You ask about climate and carbon and the value of trees, he says. Everyone knows about the value of trees; we know that the forest can clean the atmosphere. We know this already…so what are you waiting for?


CHADWICK: Minutes pass away in the midday heat. His level gaze suggests not impatience so much as a long weariness.


CHADWICK: We are waiting, says Chief Mpono Pierre, and behind him the last structures of the village of Ngoyla give way to the great, carbon-rich forest of the Congo Basin.


[MUSIC: Papa Wemba “Aladji Djambo” from Et La Musica Viva (Sonodisc 1994)]

CURWOOD: Alex Chadwick, thanks to you and Christopher Johnson for that report, but before you go tell me, where exactly do things stand now, and how much longer is that village chief going to have to wait?

CHADWICK: Boy, that is the question! You know, Steve, these REDD policies depend on people agreeing to play by the rules—regulated market rules to value carbon, how to count it, etcetera. That's what the big Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to settle all this, it didn't.

There’s another climate summit this year in Mexico. But not long ago France and Norway convened a smaller climate summit and issued invitations—it was limited, not everyone got to go. This was a forest basins conference, the people with lots of rainforest the people that really matter. So now there is a kind of leadership group coming out of that—France, Norway, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now, this might help that village chief eventually. All these countries are charged with verifying and building on the financial pledges that did come out of Copenhagen—keep pushing for preparation for full implementation of REDD. You know, Steve, there are lots of models for cooperative global initiatives, but when was the last one that featured the Democratic Republic of Congo in a prominent role?

CURWOOD: So what about that 'full implementation' of REDD? Because that really is what the chief and poor communities throughout the tropical belt are looking for, right?

CHADWICK: Exactly, that’s the only alternative to logging their forests. And the answer to those questions—when, how, how much—all these answers actually lie in Washington, DC, Steve, because the U.S. Senate has not acted on climate legislation, the legislation passed last year by the House, and until the Senate does act—until the U.S. has a climate policy, the world is not going to really settle on a global policy.

But if the Senate does pass a climate bill this year—if the U.S. comes into cap and trade—watch for this market to explode and money to start showing up lots of places. Our gross carbon emissions are enormous. We will be the biggest player in the game, that’s going to make a difference in bustling places like Kinshasa, and probably even in the small forest village of Ngoyla in eastern Cameroon.

CURWOOD: You’ve been listening to a special report of Living on Earth – REDD in the Congo Basin. And thanks to you, Alex Chadwick, for bring us that story.

CHADWICK: Steve, you’re welcome. A pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: And thanks also to your producer Christopher Johnson, and mixing engineer Sven Holcombe. Thanks also to Fon Louis Che in Cameroon, and in Kinshasa, Rhona Mulongoy, David Weiner and Cynthia Moses of the International Conservation and Education Fund.

[MUSIC: Papa Wemba “Aladji Djambo” from Et La Musica Viva (Sonodisc 1994)]


CURWOOD: We leave you this week in the forest at dawn.


CURWOOD: In the Congo Basin, at a small glade, there’s an opening in the forest. Here, amongst the tall trees, ropey lianas, and undergrowth, the Baka pygmy people have made a small shrine. To see photos of the shrine and more, go to our website l-o-e dot org


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