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Cameroon, France sign debt-for-nature agreement

Written by: Staff
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YAOUNDE, July 7 (Reuters) France and Cameroon have signed an historic debt-for-nature swap that aims to conserve some of the most pristine yet threatened rainforest in Africa.

Under the agreement, at least 25 million dollars will be invested over the five years to protect parts of the Congo River Basin, the world's second largest tropical forest after the Amazon.

French Minister for Cooperation, Development and Francophonie Brigitte Girardin said at the signing ceremony that France aimed to target debt relief on areas such as the environment, higher education and cultural diversity.

Environmental group WWF hailed the deal as a breakthrough.

''The importance of this unique and history-making agreement lies in the combination of debt forgiveness and investment in forest conservation and local communities,'' said Laurent Some, director of WWF's programme in Central Africa.

A vast forest covering 200 million hectares (494 million acres), the Congo Basin spreads across six countries and its dense forests are home to half of Africa's wild animals -- including gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants -- as well as more than 10,000 species of plants.

But it is threatened by growing human populations, illegal logging and the clearing of land for agriculture. The WWF has estimated some 70 percent of it could disappear by 2040.

The French funds will be used to better manage protected areas and to increase community forest resources and research capacity, the environmental group said.

''Ultimately, they will help reduce poverty while protecting and managing natural forestry resources,'' the WWF said.

DEBT RELIEF The agreement was initiated by France's Debt Development Contract under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, a joint programme of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to reduce the excessive debt faced by the world's poorest nations.

The five-year agreement requires Cameroon to allocate about 570 million euros (728.1 million dollars) to finance four different sectors: education, health, infrastructure and natural resources.

This is the first French debt relief deal to allocate funds to natural resources after French president Jacques Chirac specifically requested emphasis be placed on the environment.

At a February 2005 summit in Congo Republic's capital Brazzaville attended by Chirac, regional leaders pledged to protect more than seven per cent of the Congo Basin. The French president said at the time the West must bear some of its cost.

Twenty-two countries are eligible for similar relief from France, with the total estimated at 4.6 billion dollars.

Since 1999, Cameroon has created five new national parks totalling 1,076,190 hectares, with 13 others in the pipeline.

When those designations are complete, about 10 per cent of Cameroon's forests will be protected.

The Congo Basin covers Democratic Republic of Congo, most of Congo Republic, the southeastern reaches of Cameroon, southern Central African Republic, Gabon and mainland Equatorial Guinea.

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