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To safeguard tropical Africa's iconic species, let's preserve their close relationship with local communities

Tuesday, 28 February 2023 at 14:00
access_time 5 min read
Oriental Lowland Gorilla, Rwanda © UNESCO

Over time, rainforest communities in Africa have developed a close relationship with their neighbours, the so-called 'umbrella species' such as great apes and elephants. Umbrella species are often either iconic or threatened, or both. These species are called 'umbrella species' because their protection also entails the protection of a wide range of fauna and flora that share their habitat. This relationship between communities and umbrella species is expressed in various cultural practices that are passed down from generation to generation and serve to reinforce the values and beliefs that underline this relationship.

Several African governments are considering whether these practices and beliefs should be included in the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage. This would be a concrete way for these countries to demonstrate their commitment to the implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, adopted in Canada last December at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15).

A panel to start the process

This is why UNESCO is participating in a panel discussion on the sidelines of the One Forest Summit, which will be held in the Gabonese capital on 1 and 2 March, at the initiative of the Presidents of Gabon and France. The summit will provide multiple opportunities to strengthen the world's tropical rainforests, which are home to an extremely rich biodiversity and are commonly referred to as the three "lungs of the planet", including the forests of Central Africa.

The panel will highlight the practices, beliefs and values associated with these species by local communities - in other words, this intangible cultural heritage. By highlighting the links between people and the 'umbrella' species of tropical rainforests, this approach would safeguard the living heritage and strengthen the conservation of these species.

Comprising representatives of communities, the scientific community and policy makers, the panel will discuss the steps needed for researchers and local communities to jointly value the ecological, social and spiritual roles of these species, starting with a nationally organised inventory. In the next step, local actors who so wish could request the inscription of the living heritage associated with umbrella species on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This would strengthen the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, which recognises the interconnection between humans and nature, and promotes values that respect biodiversity and the natural environment; link research in the human and biological sciences with communities, civil society and education; and make the link between tropical forests, climate and biodiversity more tangible for citizens in order to better preserve biodiversity and irretrievable carbon reservoirs.

The panel discussion will therefore make it possible to initiate a process that could eventually lead to the inscription by interested countries of the cultural practices of local communities relating to the so-called umbrella species of tropical forests in their national cultural inventories, as well as the inscription by several countries by 2024 of cultural practices relating to umbrella species of forest ecosystems in the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

A process that could be based on the networks of sites designated by UNESCO

This process could be based on the existing network of 10 natural World Heritage sites and 11 biosphere reserves in the Congo Basin and Central Africa, which protect sites that are emblematic of the region's biodiversity. They are also among the most important carbon sinks on the planet.

World Heritage sites are specifically recognised by the World Heritage Convention because of their global importance for the protection of biodiversity, endangered species and intact ecosystems. One example is the Sangha Trinational World Heritage Site, the first transboundary site inscribed under the World Heritage Convention in Africa by three countries, Cameroon, Congo and the Central African Republic.

"With the nomination of a number of new World Heritage sites in the forests of the Congo Basin, the countries of Central Africa have demonstrated their commitment to conserving these forest sites for the benefit of all humanity," said Lazare Eloundou, Director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre. "With our African Forest World Heritage Initiative, we have invested more than US$ 20 million since 2002 to support countries in the region to better conserve these sites and the forest landscapes of the region in which they are located, which contribute to the long-term safeguarding not only of their exceptional biodiversity but also of their ecological functions, notably as carbon sinks.

The biosphere reserves were designated by UNESCO at the request of their inhabitants, who wanted UNESCO to accompany them in a more sustainable approach to development. While the 11 biosphere reserves currently have a national dimension, observes Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisoa, Director of UNESCO's Division of Ecological and Geological Sciences, "it is quite possible that in the future, countries in Central Africa will decide to form a transboundary reserve to better protect biodiversity within their borders. After all, great apes and elephants use migration corridors that do not stop at country borders.

The 10 natural World Heritage sites and 11 biosphere reserves together make an important contribution to combating climate change and protecting biodiversity.

Take the example of the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is becoming a centre of knowledge on climate and biodiversity. The Regional Post-Graduate School on Integrated Forest Management (Eraift) in Kinshasa, which operates under the auspices of UNESCO, is a key partner in this project. The Yangambi Biosphere Reserve is located in the heart of the world's second largest tropical forest, covering 2,350 km2 , and serves as a demonstration site for efforts to develop "green" industries in the Congo Basin, such as fish farming and sustainable community forestry. In 2020, Ghent University installed a flux tower ("Congoflux") to measure greenhouse gas exchange between the atmosphere and the forest ecosystem, a first for the Congo Basin. The data collected will fill in the gaping holes in our knowledge of the role that forests play in sequestering carbon and, consequently, in limiting climate change.

Data gaps to be filled

But there is not only a lack of data on the Congo Basin's role as a 'lung'. At COP15, UNESCO unveiled its future Biodiversity Portal and Database, which will allow anyone to track socio-ecological indicators and visualise changes on the ground around the world.

Currently, there is a lack of data on "umbrella species" in tropical Africa and beyond. This is why UNESCO has partnered with the French National Museum of Natural History to improve observation and data collection on great apes, particularly on the functioning and health of the ecosystems on which they depend. The project, which started in November 2022, is being implemented in 25 UNESCO-designated sites in Africa and Asia. The data collected with the drones will be pooled into a database, allowing for comparative studies and continental-scale changes in great ape habitat. This collaborative research project is planned to last 10 years. It will provide a better understanding of the link between a healthy environment and healthy apes, as well as the drivers and consequences of the threats they face.

More information

Biosphere reserves in Africa and around the world
What is a biosphere reserve?
Developing a green economy in Togo to relieve pressure on the forest and ...
Natural World Heritage
World Heritage Forests
The Central African World Heritage Forest Initiative
UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage

Tuesday, 28 February 2023 at 14:00
access_time 5 min read
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