Feature Story

Changing the paradigm

May 1, 2016

The Mbé River watershed presents an ideal opportunity to test an intriguing and increasingly popular question, one with roots in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Will the beneficiaries of an ecosystem service like clean water be willing to pay those people who incur the opportunity costs of conserving such a service?

The wealth from some of the largest oil reserves in Central Africa pays for the city’s skyscrapers, hotels, and lush neighborhoods. Water, on the other hand, keeps the lights on. Water, that is, spinning the turbines of two dams on the Mbé River, about 100 kilometers northeast of the city center. About 60 percent of the country’s population, many of whom missed out on the oil boom, lives in Libreville. The rapid growth of the city has strained local infrastructure, and some poor residents who once had running water in their homes must now wait in the streets with buckets to get water from hydrants.

For now, the problem is not too little water but rather how to deliver it while keeping it affordable for even the poorest families. Solving that problem will require innovative and broad-scale thinking, and Gabon may provide an ideal place to test new approaches for conservation and development efforts in the Congo Basin, home to one of the world’s largest and best preserved tropical rain forests.

The Mbé River watershed presents an ideal opportunity to test an intriguing and increasingly popular question, one with roots in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Will the beneficiaries of an ecosystem service like clean water be willing to pay those people who incur the opportunity costs of conserving such a service? In local terms, will the people of Libreville, who benefit from the power and water provided by the Mbé River, pay the land users upstream to adopt sustainable land management practices and thus preserve the city’s lifeline?

Such payments for watershed services may show the people of Gabon a new relationship between the economy and the environment. In an interview with Africa News, the former general director for the environment and nature protection at the Ministry of Environment, said “We have to shift from thinking about the environment in an economic context to thinking about the economy in an environmental context. We’re changing the paradigm.”

The Mbé River watershed, a key region both biologically and economically, begins in the mountains near Gabon’s border with Equatorial Guinea and encompasses about 160,000 hectares. This globally important region is among the most biologically diverse in Africa, rich in species, many of which exist nowhere else on Earth. The diversity of the Mbé River watershed stems in part from its unusual topography: Huge, rocky outcrops called inselbergs loom above the forest canopy, each one an island in a sea of trees that harbors its own distinct plants and animals. Further increasing diversity, the region receives up to 2,000 millimeters of rain per year, making it one of the wettest places on the continent.

The Mbé watershed straddles two biogeographic regions, with mountainous coastal forests to the west and lower-lying forests stretching eastward into the center of the Congo Basin. The combination of location, climate, and topography has isolated the landscape and ensured habitat stability throughout the last ice-age, when most forests of the region dried out and became savannahs. As a result of its long period of isolation and stability, the Mbé River watershed is one of the oldest forests in all of Africa, and it harbors a unique assemblage of species.

About a third of the Mbé River watershed falls within Monts de Cristal National Park. Outside the park, however, mining and forest concessions, along with villages and small scale farming could threaten the forests and ecosystem services. For now at least, the most important economic resource is the river itself. The Mbé feeds two dams, with a total output of nearly 130 megawatts, and a pipeline brings drinking water from the Mbé into Libreville.

Neither the dams nor the drinking water will last unless the entire watershed remains intact; loss of forest cover could lead to erosion and siltation that could eventually shut off both the power and the water. Despite fragile and erosionprone soils, especially on steep slopes and near rivers, not one of the four logging concessions in the watershed abides by internationally-recognized sustainable forestry standards that could help prevent sedimentation and protect water quality. The companies cite notably high start-up costs as the reason for their unwillingness to adopt such practices.

Mining presents similar risks, though the mining industry is less developed than logging in the Mbé River watershed. The Mountains of Monts de Cristal contain rich mineral deposits — gold, diamonds, iron and platinum. Two exploratory mining permits for iron and platinum cover the entire watershed, and artisanal gold miners work in the region as well. Mining activity can threaten biodiversity and watershed ecosystem services; gold mining in particular can cause mercury pollution and increase sediment load in rivers, which harms both the hydroelectric dams and aquatic biodiversity.

Traveling along the main road that runs from Libreville to the city of Medouneu on the border the Equatorial Guinea reveals another potential threat to the Mbé. The road runs along the western edge of the watershed, and small towns and villages dot the roadway. The residents have made small clearings for their manioc, bananas, pineapple, peanuts, and yams. The road, however, provides the promise of access to urban markets, and with it the risk that the small-scale agriculture will become commercial, leading to deforestation. Deforestation rates in Gabon are among the lowest in Central Africa but could increase if the population or the demand for food rises.

The people and the business interests in the Mbé watershed thus have great incentive to exploit the resource of the area as fully as possible, while the residents of Libreville and the utility company that owns the dams and the pipeline, will suffer the consequences if such exploitation leads to long-term damage to the river. Payments for watershed ecosystem services may thus make perfect sense here.

The Mbé River watershed is an excellent site for a pilot project of this sort, given that the hydroelectric power utility is an obvious buyer of the watershed ecosystem services. Unlike carbon or biodiversity, the watershed services of the Mbé are tangible and there is an equally obvious local beneficiary. With GEF support to the start up costs, the parties are designing a contractual payment scheme which ensures that the quantity and quality of water provided by the watershed is maintained. In exchange, Monts de Cristal National Park, management bodies, local communities, and other stakeholders will receive financial resources to invest in management activities that lead to further protection of this valuable resource.

This initiative is exciting, with all the potential ingredients for success. It is also daunting, due to the number of stakeholders with multiple interests, including ministries, the Monts de Cristal National Park, local authorities, mining and logging concessionaires, and local communities. The utility company needs to understand the link between deforestation and sedimentation. Similarly, local populations currently cause relatively little land degradation, making it difficult to determine what harmful activities they could be paid to stop doing. Finally, if the utility company, the main buyer of ecosystem services in this model, passes on some or all of the cost to its customers — electricity and water users in Libreville — then support for the idea could evaporate.

Recognizing the considerable challenges ahead to maintain the ecological integrity and resilience of its forest ecosystems, countries across the Congo Basin have jointly taken important steps to address the threats. In 1999, heads of state from Central Africa signed the Yaoundé Declaration, in which they announced their commitment to forest conservation in the region. In 2005, the countries ratified the Central African Forest Commission Treaty, and the commission is now the regional authority for orientation, decision making, and coordination of subregional actions and initiatives for the conservation and sustainable management of forest ecosystems. Ten countries of the Congo Basin — Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda, and São Tomé and Principe — have developed a shared vision and a 10-year plan of action on forestry, called the Convergence Plan, backed by strong, high-level political will and commitment.

To support this commitment, the GEF launched the Strategic Program for Sustainable Forest management in the Congo basin in February, 2008. The Strategic Program seeks to reverse the current rate of deforestation and degradation of ecosystems, maintain ecosystem functioning, and conserve ecosystem values such as the biodiversity and carbon-based capital of the Basin.

The Strategic Program helps countries in the Basin meet their conservation and development targets and coordinates the many regional, national, and local initiatives already underway. The program also plays an important role in bridging the current gaps between political commitment and institutional weakness and the lack of stakeholder participation in on-the-ground implementation.

The Strategic Program has three main components:

■ Maintaining ecosystem functions and values, especially biodiversity and carbon-based capital, in the regional network of protected areas

■ Fostering sustainable management and use of forest and water resources in the larger productive landscape of the Congo Basin

■ And strengthening the policy, regulatory, institutional, and sustainable financing framework for sustainable ecosystem management.

The Strategic Program has identified 13 projects, including the Mbé River watershed project, that reflect strong partnerships among Central African countries, their institutions, and other partners such as GEF agencies, cooperating agencies, NGOs, the private sector, and civil society. The sustainable management and protection of the natural capital assets of the Congo Basin will eventually benefit more than 25 million people whose livelihoods depend on the forest ecosystems.

A growing number of multilateral development organizations and international agencies are now using this kind of programmatic approach to support developing countries and countries with economies in transition. The GEF has long been committed to a programmatic approach, based on the principle that the institution’s focus should be on programs rather than just simply individual projects. The GEF programmatic approach enables countries to achieve meaningful impacts by strengthening country ownership, promoting integration of global environmental concerns into decision making, and increasing opportunities for cofinancing from a variety of other sources.

This philosophy is based on the recognition that project-based activities provide recipient countries with little leverage to influence sector-wide transformations, while a programmatic approach is more likely to deliver synergistic results that benefit all. A broad range of activities are already underway in the Congo Basin, promising better conservation of forests and showing the potential to provide multiple benefits to the people of the region while protecting the ecosystem services on which they depend.