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A new analysis conducted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) of 100 of the most significant tropical timber and pulp companies has found that over half do not publicly commit to protect biodiversity and just 13% actively monitor for deforestation in the areas they manage. The analysis shows an overall failure of timber companies to guarantee environmental protections for at least 11.7 million hectares of tropical forests. 

The analysis shows that over half of these companies (54%) do not publicly commit to protect biodiversity and 44% have yet to publicly commit to zero-deforestation. Meanwhile, only 37% provide evidence of conservation, such as restoring river habitats or planting native species in degraded areas. Alarmingly, only 13% report actively monitoring for deforestation in the areas they manage.

Overall, these companies manage 11.7 million hectares of tropical forest around the world. However, as many of the companies do not disclose the size of the areas under their control, the real extent of at-risk tropical forests is probably far larger, despite the agreement to halve deforestation by 2020 in the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) which was signed by governments, representatives of the timber industry and NGOs in 2014. 

Charlie Hammans, ZSL’s Forestry Technical Manager and leader of the analysis, says, “Tropical forests play a vital role as a carbon ‘sink’. They regulate global weather patterns, contain countless species and are home to 300 million people, yet companies still aren’t complying with the basic reporting standards expected of the sector.” 

The assessments have revealed that significant improvements are required from companies to ensure the future of millions of hectares of carbon-rich forest.  Without adequate protection, forests are vulnerable to rapid deforestation and degradation, which often leads to the eventual clearance for other commodities such as palm oil, rubber or cocoa.  

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Hammans adds, “Worldwide trade in unsustainable timber threatens the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities and the existence of wildlife reliant on forest ecosystems. It is accelerating the loss of biodiversity and eroding natural protections against zoonotic viruses. Companies should focus on identifying previously degraded landscapes for new plantation development, alongside adopting robust environmental, social and corporate governance policies and constantly monitoring their implementation.” 

COVID-19 has highlighted the risk of zoonotic diseases. Forest destruction and degradation, and the loss of biodiversity within ecosystems, are known to increase the risk of viral spill-over and make future pandemics more likely. In fact, this sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, who released a report warning that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

With forestry operations and trade ministries worldwide keen to boost exports following the economic impact of the pandemic, governments and industries must improve sustainability standards and drive a green agenda. 

Eugenie Mathieu of Aviva Investors says, “Deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change all pose significant financial risks, not only to the planet but also to economies, corporate bottom lines, and investors’ savings and investments. There is now a growing expectation for companies to publicly disclose and implement a zero-deforestation policy covering the entire supply chain, and establish a transparent monitoring and verification system for their suppliers. This analysis not only highlights the companies improving their disclosures, it also shines a light on the laggards that are failing to meet basic commitments to protect these critical habitats.” 

Featured image supplied by Zoological Society of London.

On July 31, Earth.Org reported that the president of Cameroon had approved a logging concession in the Ebo Forest that would threaten the species living there. Now, nearly three weeks after the fact, President Paul Biya has withdrawn the decree and has suspended the process for a second concession to log 170 000 acres of forest land. Conservationists are hopeful that the government will embark on an inclusive land-use planning process with local communities to determine the future of Ebo Forest.

Ebo Forest is the ancestral land of more than 40 communities and remains one of the last intact forests in central Africa. Besides being a biodiversity hotspot, the local Banen communities depend on Ebo Forest for food and traditional medicines so any non-consensual development of the forest would heavily affect them. Before Cameroon’s independence in 1960, many communities lived in the forest and their patriarchs and matriarchs are buried there.

The Cameroonian government had signed an international agreement to protect gorillas and their habitats July 20, but two days later it issued a decree establishing a logging concession in Ebo Forest. 

Ebo Forest is a hotspot for conservation research and discoveries. The forest provides critical habitat for many species of endangered primates including gorillas, chimpanzees and red colobus monkeys. Researchers believe that the small population of gorillas in Ebo may be a new subspecies because they are geographically distinct from other populations of western lowland and cross river gorillas. In 2005, researchers discovered that the tool-wielding Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzees in Ebo Forest are culturally distinct from any other group of chimpanzees in Africa and are the only chimpanzees to use tools to both fish for termites and crack hard-shelled nuts.

“The president’s intervention to halt the imminent destruction of this unique forest is hugely welcome,” said Bethan Morgan, San Diego Zoo Global’s Central Africa Program head, who has been working to conserve the great apes of Ebo since she first observed gorillas there in 2002. “We hope that the international community will seize this opportunity to work with the government of Cameroon to make Ebo a showcase for long-term conservation in harmony with very challenged communities. These communities have been responsible for the preservation of the treasures of Ebo to date, and an inclusive land-use planning process is now needed to fully share information in order to make clear and calculated judgements about the future of the forest and its people.”

Ebo Forest makes up half of the Yabassi Key Biodiversity Area, making it a site of global importance to the planet’s overall health and the persistence of biodiversity. It sequesters 35 million tons of carbon. Botanical survey efforts, supported by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with Herbier National Camerounais, have resulted in the discovery of 29 species new to science, and the area is known to contain 52 globally threatened species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The forest is also a proposed tropical Important Plant Area.

Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry signed two orders on February 4, proposing the classification of two forestry management units for timber extraction in Ebo Forest. The units would have destroyed the entire gorilla habitat and would have leveled the western part of the forest. The orders were posted publicly on March 9, but that did not give the local communities living around Ebo sufficient time and opportunity to provide their input.

In April, more than 60 conservationists, including experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group and Global Wildlife Conservation, signed a letter to Cameroon’s Prime Minister Joseph Ngute, asking that the plans for the logging concessions be put on hold and the government work with local communities to develop a sustainable land-use plan. They argued that adopting a more inclusive process would signal to Cameroon’s international partners that the government intends to honour its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Chief Victor Yetina of Ndikbassogog and a representative of the Association Munen Retour aux Sources, and Ekwoge Abwe, manager of the San Diego Zoo Central Africa Program’s Ebo Forest Research Project, issued a joint statement following the news:  “We welcome the suspension for now of logging plans in Ebo Forest, but are concerned that its fate remains unclear. This decision must be the first step toward recognition of Banen’s rights and forest protection. We call on the government of Cameroon to adhere to its international commitments, and to promote participatory mapping and land-use planning with local communities. Land tenure reform must have at its core the full recognition of communities’ rights. We also call on international donors and NGOs to support these processes with technical expertise and resources, both in Ebo Forest and across the Congo Basin.”

Featured image by: Laurent de Walick

On July 22, Cameroon approved a logging concession in Ebo Forest in the Littoral region, despite the fact that the forest is home to many species of endangered primates, including gorillas, chimpanzees and red colobus monkeys. Ironically, the government signed an international agreement to protect gorillas and their habitats just two days previously. 

The government has planned to extract timber from the Ebo forest since at least February, when the country’s Minister of Forestry signed two orders proposing the classification of two forestry management units for timber extraction in the forest without consulting the local communities living around the forest or allowing them an opportunity to give their input. Ebo is the ancestral home of more than 40 communities. They depend on the forest for food and traditional medicines.

In response to this, in April, more than 60 conservationists, including experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Primate Specialist Group and Global Wildlife Conservation, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Joseph Ngute, asking that the plans for the logging concessions be put on hold and the government work with local communities to develop a sustainable land-use plan. 

Instead of logging Ebo Forest, they suggested, sustainable land-use alternatives could be a viable option for generating revenue for Cameroon, supporting the socio-economic livelihoods of Ebo’s nearby communities, and protecting this critical habitat for some of Africa’s most endangered wildlife, including gorillas. They argued that allowing a more inclusive process would show the international community that the government intends to honour its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government did not respond.

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cameroon logging gorillas
A camera trap photo of a gorilla in Ebo Forest in Cameroon (Photo provided by Global Wildlife Conservation). 

Russ Mittermeier, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, chief conservation officer for Global Wildlife Conservation and a signatory of the letter to Cameroon’s government, says, “The Ebo Forest is a globally important ecosystem that is home to some very endangered species such as Preuss’s red colobus. I cannot comprehend why the government would issue a logging concession for short-term gain to destroy such an important part of Cameroon’s natural heritage. The future value for ecotourism alone would far outweigh the value of the timber, never mind all the other ecosystem service values that the forest provides for local communities.”

The Ebo forest makes up half of the Yabassi Key Biodiversity Area, and it is vitally important to the planet’s overall health. It sequesters 35 million tons of carbon and its destruction will exacerbate the climate crisis. The 1 500 square-kilometer forest, which was once slated to become a national park, is home to forest elephants, 12 endemic species of plants, a potentially new subspecies of gorillas and 700 endangered Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzees.

The forest was also once home to the critically endangered Preuss’s red colobus monkey, a species found only in western Cameroon and southeastern Nigeria. The 17 species of red colobus monkeys are among the most threatened primate groups in mainland Africa.

Researchers have not been able to confirm the presence of Preuss’s red colobus in the Ebo forest since 2012. Hunting for the bushmeat trade has likely greatly reduced their numbers. Red colobus are usually the first primate species to disappear from forests with heavy hunting pressure. If they disappear from an area, it is likely that many other species are suffering and in decline as well. If Preuss’s red colobus are still present in the Ebo forest, conservationists fear the logging concession, which will increase hunting pressure, could permanently prevent the species from rebounding.

Earth.Org received this information from Global Wildlife Conservation, which conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. It does this through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at https://globalwildlife.org

Featured image by: Global Wildlife Conservation.

It’s the world’s biggest importer of logs, legal and illegal alike. A behemoth that drives an engine of timber harvesting across the world, from the rainforests of Malaysia to the jungles of Cameroon. But now, China may be poised to enter the club of countries who play another role in the timber trade: enforcer of the rules fighting against illegal logging.

On December 28th, 2019, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee revised the country’s Forest Law, for the first time including language that bars Chinese companies and investors from trafficking in illegal timber. Environmental advocates say the change is significant, and are hopeful it’s a signal that China is prepared to crack down on the illegal logging trade.

“We’re quite encouraged by some of the language in there,” said Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness.

The revisions are the first changes made to China’s Forest Law in over twenty years. If effectively implemented, the new rules could boost international efforts aimed at curbing the sale of illegally harvested logs, which has been estimated to be worth as much as $150 billion per year.

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China’s Timber Industry

According to a 2019 analysis by Global Witness, which monitors illegalities in the natural resource trade, 80% of China’s tropical timber imports in 2018 came from ten countries with weak governance and accountability indicators. They included Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea, among others.

The trade in illegal logs is one of the most lucrative criminal markets on earth, with INTERPOL estimating that it represents between 15 and 30% of the overall market for wood products. Public officials in countries with tropical rainforests can reap huge financial benefits from the trade, worsening corruption of already fragile governments and threatening the sustainable management of those forests.

According to the World Bank, illegal logging may be responsible for as much as $78 billion dollars per year in lost global tax revenue – money that could be used by low-income countries to fund a wide range of public needs. And as its economy has boomed, lax timber import markets in China have been one of the main drivers of the illegal logging problem.

“It could be a massive game changer,” said Lisa Handy, Senior Policy Advisor with the Washington, DC-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “China remains by far the largest market for timber as well as illegal timber. The fact that they’ve been such a black box for timber import and processing has just allowed the trade to flourish.”

Article 65 of the revised law now reads, “No unit or individual may purchase, process or transport timber that he/she clearly knows was piratically felled or indiscriminately felled in forest regions.” The revisions are set to come into force on July 1, 2020.

But analysts say that the real test of whether or not the revised law will have a practical effect on the market comes down to how it is interpreted and enforced.

“It will depend on the level of political support they’ll have in terms of ensuring that it’s effectively implemented,” said Allison Hoare, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, which has released a series of reports on China’s role in the global timber trade. “It’s relatively easy to introduce a piece of legislation but the tougher part is ensuring it’s enforced effectively.”

The clause specifying that traders must “clearly know” that timber has been sourced illegally in order for penalties to apply to them, for example, could set a high bar.

“We’d like to see that further developed to make sure it’s a threshold that allows effective enforcement to be taken,” said Blackman.

The revised Forest Law was written mainly to regulate the use of domestic forests inside of China rather than those of the country’s trading partners abroad. But an article emphasizing the law’s applicability to China’s import markets was recently posted to the website of China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration.

Advocates say they hope it’s a sign that the government is prepared to exercise tougher oversight on importers.

The revisions to China’s law follows a series of measures passed in Europe and the US in recent years which levy harsh penalties against companies found to be importing illegal logs. While China has lagged behind its wealthier trading partners in establishing similar regulatory regimes, analysts say there’s been a growing sentiment among Chinese policymakers for the need to catch up.

“I think for quite a few years there has been a reasonable level of awareness of China’s role in purchasing and driving illegal logging in other countries, and there has been some interest and political commitment inside the government to make progress,” said Hoare.

Chinese President Xi Jinping often references his goal of building an “ecological civilization,” and the country is due to host the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference in late October, barring unforeseen complications stemming from the global coronavirus outbreak.

According to Jo Blackman of Global Witness, the real measure of the new law will come down to whether it leads to consequences for those who break it:

“The supply chain behavior and sourcing practices of these companies only change if they really believe that they’re at risk of falling afoul of enforcement regimes, and they only believe that when they see action taken against significant importers.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Ashoka Mukpo, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

The world’s orangutans are facing dire straits. As the palm oil and illegal logging industries continue to boom, critical orangutan habitats in Indonesia and Malaysia are rapidly disappearing. The plight of the orangutans may be grave, but there is still time to secure a brighter future for these great apes. 

Orangutan Facts: Gardeners of the Forest 

Orangutans are highly intelligent mammals that share nearly 97% of their DNA with humans. Originally considered one species, there are now three recognised species of orangutans– the Sumatran orangutan, the Bornean orangutan, and the Tapanuli orangutan, all considered critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The world’s remaining wild orangutans- estimated to be less than 120 000– exist exclusively in the dwindling tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. 

Orangutans experience long childhoods, with young orangutans typically spending between seven and eleven years with their mothers. Adult female orangutans also experience lengthy intervals between births. These relatively low reproductive rates result in slow species propagation, which exacerbates existing threats to the future existence of orangutans. 

As a result of their fruit-heavy diets, orangutans perform the crucial ecosystem service of seed dispersal. Often referred to as the ‘gardeners of the forest’, orangutans directly contribute to the health and continuity of their tropical forest environments. Healthy forests, in turn, provide a host of critical ecological services, including the prevention of water runoff, soil erosion mitigation, and global carbon sequestration and storage.

Orangutans are highly perceptive, inquisitive, and creative animals. However, due to a range of imminent threats, the future existence of these great apes is anything but certain. 

Why are orangutans endangered?

Perhaps the greatest threat to orangutan survival is the extremely lucrative palm oil industry. Palm oil, which is used to produce a wide array of food and personal care products, is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. Palm oil is extracted from oil palm trees, which are mass-cultivated on huge monoculture plantations. 90% of these oil palm plantations are located in Indonesia and Malaysia, the region upon which wild orangutans are completely dependent for their survival. 

Palm oil cultivation requires the widespread clearing of rainforest habitats, often via human-induced forest fires, in order to make space for palm oil plantations. This large-scale deforestation has devastating effects on wildlife species, particularly vulnerable orangutan populations. Subsequent habitat loss and fragmentation force orangutans to migrate to less ideal territories, where many starve and experience decreased reproductive rates. 

Illegal logging is another major threat to vulnerable orangutan populations. It was estimated that illegal logging had taken place in 90% of Indonesia’s national parks in 2007, which are considered the ‘last strongholds of orangutans’. The lucrative illegal industry is driven primarily by international markets and timber supply networks, with Asian, European and North American countries being major recipients of illegally-logged timber. 

Illegal logging contributes heavily to the mass destruction and fragmentation of orangutan habitats. Unfortunately, park rangers in Indonesia’s national parks possess insufficient numbers, training, and equipment to effectively ward off illegal logging activity.

Other threats to the future survival of orangutans include road development, mining, illegal hunting, and illegal animal trade.

Land-Use Conflicts 

The road to securing a brighter future for orangutans is laden with little-acknowledged economic and moral complications. Orangutan habitat preservation presents land-use conflicts with local stakeholders who are able to generate direct income through habitat elimination and palm oil production. These local communities consequently suffer as a result of orangutan preservation and are not sufficiently compensated by people who support conservation efforts.

The idea of orangutan preservation, on the other hand, is enjoyed by the global masses, including the wealthy, who bear little to none of the cost that local communities suffer. It is essential that future orangutan conservation initiatives exist with the interests of both orangutans and local stakeholders in mind.

What Can Be Done? 

Fortunately, despite their dire straits, there is hope for the orangutans. Many organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Orangutan Foundation, the Orangutan Conservancy, and Orangutan Outreach, are working diligently to support orangutan preservation through a range of conservation activities.    

However, there is always more that can be done. Consumers can support orangutans by only purchasing wood and paper products with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label, by only purchasing palm oil products made with Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, or by avoiding palm oil products altogether. 

Additionally, members of the public can make a positive impact by spreading the word about the plight of the orangutans, by taking small steps to reduce their carbon footprints, and by encouraging friends, family members and colleagues to take similar action. 

A new study has indicated that 31.7% of tropical African flora species are at risk of going extinct, affecting those countries that rely on its biodiversity for tourism and fuel.

In the study, tropical flora was assessed across the continent. The findings were published in the Science Advances Journal and used an assessment process outlined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria.

The research demonstrated that 6,990 of the 22,036 species studied, or 31.7%, are at risk of extinction. Much of western African countries, Ethiopia, and parts of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the hardest-hit regions, standing to lose more than 40% of their flora. The species both at risk and potential risk include trees, shrubs, herbs and woody vines.

Biodiversity Loss in Africa

Loss of biodiversity will be particularly problematic in tropical Africa, “a region of incredible diversity but with major social and political challenges and expected rapid population growth over the next decades,” said lead researcher Dr Thomas Couvreur, a botanist at The French National Institute for Sustainable Development.

The situation could get worse. As well as the species that are at risk of extinction, a further 33.2% of the species studied are rare and could potentially be threatened with extinction. Major threats to biodiversity, especially in areas of exceptional plant diversity, primarily in the tropics, are often linked to industrial-scale activities such as timber exploitation or large plantations, mining and agriculture.

Research projects such as these are vital; while almost 90% of mammals and two-thirds of birds have been assessed, less than 8% of plants have been assessed, a surprising find considering how crucial plants are to the Earth’s ecosystems. This lack of data is especially true for tropical regions, such as the ones found in Africa, where the flora is extremely diverse, but have been poorly documented. 

Biodiversity going extinct has a knock-on effect. For example, some of the plant species that the African forest elephant eat can only germinate by passing through the animal’s digestive tract. Without these tree species, the elephants cannot eat and without the elephants, the tree species cannot reproduce, further emphasising the need to preserve these ecosystems.

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Commiphora is listed as endangered in four regions of Africa, including Ethiopia. (Source: Vinayaraj)

This assessment process aims to provide information on the conservation status of large numbers of species, following the guidelines of Preliminary Automated Conservation Assessments (PACA). By using PACA, the entire flora of a given area can be assessed. This allows species, both at threat and requiring additional attention, to be identified. 

The new approaches used in the study also provide useful guidelines for others to follow; they reduce cost, time and increase the potential of carrying out large-scale assessments. This is important as information can be gleaned quicker and at a cheaper rate. 

Professor Bonaventure Sonké, Professor at the Laboratory of Systematic Botany and Ecology of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (University Yaounde 1, Cameroon), says that the results were possible ‘because the partners involved agreed to share their data’. He adds that this creates ‘a strong signal to encourage researchers to share their data’.

The importance of sharing data is being realised and there is hope that this collaborative approach will produce solutions quicker. However, it may not be quick enough. The UN Environment Programme says, “No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa. Given its geographical position, the continent will be particularly vulnerable due to its considerably limited adaptive capacity, which will be exacerbated by widespread poverty.”

Despite this, perhaps the immensity of the challenges facing the continent can be mitigated through new approaches such as the ones used in the study. Dr Covreur says that “this study is the first large-scale assessment of the potential conservation status of the tropical African flora, explicitly using the IUCN’s methodology. While the results of the study are concerning, it is important that more studies such as these are conducted, so that threats facing biodiversity can be ascertained and managed.”

Article 14 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity explicitly states that environmental impact assessments (EIAs) should be conducted before implementing projects that could impact on biodiversity in an area. To reduce risks linked to environmental concerns, EIAs should identify adverse impacts by projects on biodiversity and indicate measures to avoid, minimise and offset these impacts. This process must be followed to ensure that the richness of these countries’ biodiversity is preserved. 

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