Second in size only to the Amazon, the Congo Basin rainforest covers more than 180 million hectares, spreading across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most of the Republic of Congo (RoC), the southeast of Cameroon, southern Central African Republic (CAR), Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This vast area is a vital regulator of regional climate, a carbon store of global significance and an important reserve of biodiversity hosting over 10,000 species of plant, 1,000 species of bird and 400 species of mammal including three of the world's four species of great ape.
The Congo Basin is thought to have been inhabited by humankind for more than 50,000 years and today is home to more than 50 million rural people. This includes up to 500,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers commonly referred to as "Pygmies", most of which are still at least partially nomadic. The forest is a vital resource for these groups, providing food, water, shelter and medicine as well as being central to cultural identity and spiritual beliefs. "Pygmies" in Central Africa mostly do not have even birth certificates or national identity documents, are not represented in government and have little or no access to education, health services and other state services.
The newly independent Congo Basin countries maintained former colonial laws which gave the state overall ownership of the land. Indigenous and local communities have virtually no formal or legally-recognised control of the territories they traditionally occupy. Today much of the region has been leased out to foreign logging and mining companies, many of which are characterised by poor social and environmental practice. Although rates of outright deforestation in the Congo Basin region are lower than other regions, the opening up of ‘frontier forests' by logging companies is very extensive; deforestation is very likely to accelerate greatly in the coming decade. However, as elsewhere in the world, attempts at strict environmental preservation have often excluded local populations, resulting in their forced eviction from traditional lands, creating ‘vacuums’ into which commercial poachers and illegal loggers have been drawn.
The Rainforest Foundation UK believes that new, people-focused, approaches need to be developed for forest conservation in the Congo Basin to succeed.