Congo, Brazil in a pact over forest communities

By Henry Neondo

The ministers of the environment Marina Silva from Brazil and Didace Pembe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo promised to increase their support for forest communities that are striving to develop enterprises through sustainable uses of local resources.

The two countries together possess the largest expanses of tropical forests in the world.
Despite these great natural assets, the inhabitants of the forests live in crushing poverty, often living on no more than US$1 a day.

The commitments on the part of the ministers were made during two separate speeches during an international conference on community forest enterprises, which will continue through Friday, 20 July 2007 in Rio Branco, capital of Acre, one of eight states that comprise the Brazilian Amazon.

The event, organized by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), has brought together 250 representatives of community enterprises from more than 40 countries. The conference was supported, as well, by the governments of Brazil and the State of Acre.

During the opening of the event, Brazil’s minister of the environment, Marina Silva, said that the needs of local forest inhabitants would be made a priority in implementing the new plan for use of the public forests, which was created by the new Brazilian Forestry Service.

The minister also proposed the creation of a dedicated fund, to be managed by ITTO, and supported with resources from the member governments of the organization. The fund would be used to finance sustainable development projects proposed by forest communities.

According to the minister, a recent government report found that of the 193 million hectares of government-owned native forest, or 62 percent, are in the hands of local forest communities.
Brazil, therefore, has the potential to become a leader in community forest management, following an example set by Guatemala and Mexico, according to major study coordinated by Augusta Molnar, director of communities and markets for RRI.

The joint ITTO/RRI study released earlier this week at the conference, evaluated the experiences of 20 forest enterprises in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Worldwide, community forestry enterprises are becoming a significant force, particularly in terms of their impact on the economies of poor nations, according to the study.
“Community-based Forest Enterprises in Tropical Forest Countries: Status and Potential.” Communities worldwide now own or have the right to manage 11 percent of the world’s natural forests, and in developing countries, this share rises to 22 percent.

The study suggests that such enterprises can generate a wide range of goods and services, while reducing poverty among local populations, and fostering biodiversity conservation and investments in social infrastructure, including schools and healthcare facilities.

Didace Pembe, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, proposed an agreement with Brazil to allow both nations to learn from the experiences of the other in forest management.

“Brazil can inspire models of sustainable use in the forests of Africa because the country has succeeded in several key areas, as shown in the example of reserves set aside so communities can continue lifestyles based on commercial use of forests. Such “extractive reserves” now comprise 10 million hectares of government forest lands, according to RRI’s Augusta Molnar.

According to the African minister, a political alliance between the two countries could serve as well to help them address international political pressure regarding their environmental policies.

“We’d like developed countries to pay for the environmental services that our forests produce for the entire international community,” Pembe said.

The executive director of ITTO, Manoel Sobral, noted that the proposals of the two ministers, announced during the conference in Acre, suggests that the governments of the two countries understand the role of community enterprises in conserving the forests and in reducing poverty through sustainable use of natural resources.

Sobral added that in tropical countries with great potential, “too much red tape and the lack of access to financing must be overcome. That is the only way that these efforts to build community forest enterprises will, in fact, live up to their full potential.”

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