YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – West and Central African leaders are to put in place a joint security force with the aim of better protecting the Congo Basin’s forest resources and combating pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea.
Meeting at a summit in late June in Yaounde, Cameroon, 15 governments agreed to create a regional security network to protect their common heritage. The countries involved are Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Chad, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Sao Tomé-et-Principe, Togo and Gambia.
At the summit’s close, Cameroonian President Paul Biya said the military initiative – for which each country will make troops available as needed - would ensure adequate protection of Central and West African resources.
“Our natural resources have been constantly under threat, and individual security efforts have not proved effective enough. It is our wish that the common security system comes to reinforce and reinvigorate existing structures for better results in the future,” Biya said.
The new force is being managed by a secretariat in Yaounde, and will draw on an effective information sharing system among national security structures.
“Without peace and security along our coastline and in the region’s rich forest expanses, we cannot talk of development, because these areas constitute the core of our natural resources,” said Aja Isatou Njie-Saidy, Gambia’s vice president and the only female leader at the gathering.
The people of West and Central Africa depend on the shipping industry for imports, and many jobs will be at risk if maritime security is not guaranteed, she said.
“Our rich forest in the Congo Basin is fast disappearing and something has to be done to safeguard it,” she added.
The new commitments, outlined in a legally binding code at the end of the two-day summit, include the suppression and prevention of cross-border criminal activities, including maritime piracy along the Gulf of Guinea coast, illegal forest exploitation and poaching of endangered animal species.
Emmanuel Nyamshi, coordinator of the Bio-resource Centre for Development, a Cameroonian NGO, welcomed the establishment of a cross-border security network.
“Many African countries are striving for emergence or transition to economic growth and it is critical for governments, civil society organisations, corporate leaders and other actors to protect and manage valuable, scarce resources emanating from the environment,” he said.
He cited an incident in 2012 in which some 400 elephants were killed at the Bouba Djida Park in northern Cameroon in less than a month by poachers looking for ivory from neighbouring countries, including Niger and Chad.
“These cross-border criminal invasions and activities against the environment would have been checked and contained if there was a strong regional security force,” Nyamshi said.
The countries at the summit also agreed to include in their national budgets special funding for the activities of forest guards, as well as for a common security fund to be managed by the force’s Yaounde head office.
In a 2010 report, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) underlined the importance of peace and security to any sustainable environmental initiatives on the African continent.
“Peace is a prerequisite for human development and effective environmental management, both of which are critical to Africa achieving national and regional goals, such as those of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and its environmental action plan, as well as globally agreed objectives, including those of the Millennium Development Goals,” the report said.
NOT ENOUGH PROTECTION
Regional environmental security initiatives already exist. They include the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), launched in 1985, and the African Ministerial Council on Water (AMCOW), established in 2002.
Both these bodies are charged with mobilising political and technical support to address environmental issues, such as land degradation and desertification, chemicals management, access to safe water and sanitation, and integrated water management, as well as ensuring the security of those resources.
But Cameroon’s environment minister, Hele Pierre, told journalists at the summit that such regional initiatives have not proven effective enough in protecting natural resources.
WWF Cameroon has long called for stepped-up efforts across political borders to safeguard the environment of the Congo Basin, which spans Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
According to the green group, the Congo Basin possesses the most biologically diverse and complex forest on earth, where rainfall is abundant and temperatures are always warm.
The tropical forest - the largest in the planet after the Amazon - also plays a critical role in mitigating climate change because it act as a carbon sink, soaking up heat-trapping greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
About 60 million people in the Congo Basin depend on the rainforest for food, including bush meat, and income from selling timber. However, the forest is being cleared at a rapid rate due to rising global demand for minerals and wood, according to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Two major forest initiatives were launched in the last decade or so by these countries and their partners: the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC), whose treaty was signed in 2005, and the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP), launched in 2002.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.