June 17, 2008

Former PM Paul Martin Launches Fund to Save Africa’s Congo Basin


LONDON - It's a haven for elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas and other wildlife - and, now, former prime minister Paul Martin has helped launch a fund to save the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world.

The $200-million Congo Basin Forest Fund, launched in London, England on Tuesday, is jointly funded by Britain and Norway, aims to make the forested area in Central Africa worth more as a living resource than it would be cut down.

"The preservation of the Congo Basin rainforest is a tremendous step forward, if we can make it happen, in the fight against climate change," said Martin in an interview Tuesday.

"Giving these communities the ability to benefit from this is going to be a tremendous step forward in poverty alleviation in the whole area," said Martin, a longtime advocate for African debt relief, who co-chairs the fund along with Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai.

Martin said he was approached a couple of months ago to co-chair the fund by his friend, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses can apply for funding over the next 10 years for initiatives to slow down deforestation and fight poverty in the rainforest, which spans six countries.

Martin said it would be an opportunity for Canadian businesses and others to preserve the forest and substantially increase the quality of life of the up to 65 million people who live in the basin. He described the residents as among the poorest people in the world.

One of the fund's first projects will be to put British-made, high-resolution cameras on a satellite to beam pictures of deforestation directly to Central Africa where Martin said locals will help map the rainforest and accurately determine what's being cut down.

"I was in Cameroon not long ago and we went to an area that was supposed to be a rainforest and it was just a clear-cut field," said Martin.

Covering about two million square kilometres, the Congo Basin includes about one fifth of the world's remaining closed canopy tropical rainforest. It is home to 10,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds, 700 species of fish and 400 species of mammals.

But it's come under increasing pressure from logging, oil and mining industries, changing agriculture patterns and population growth that are causing greater deforestation - which experts say is a leading cause of global warming.

The UN estimates 66 per cent of the rainforest will be destroyed by 2040 if action is not taken now.