Protected areas are at the heart of the biodiversity conservation strategy: their purpose is to protect, over the long term, the natural heritage and biological resources that form the backbone of the countries’ economies.
In most of Central Africa, the first generations of protected areas, in the modern sense of the term, were established during the colonial period, early in the 20th century. The creation of these sites at first reflected a strategy of giving respite to resources that were threatened with potentially excessive offtake of wildlife and timber. Central Africa's first national parks were created in the 1930s, in application of an official decree issued in what was then French Equatorial Africa (AEF). In other parts of the region also, some areas of outstanding natural wealth were given protected status before the above-mentioned convention came into being.
The trend grew after World War II. Between 1945 and 1960 the colonial powers selected conservation territories, usually vast, sparsely populated areas far from economic development centres. During this period, most of the new protected areas were in savanna areas or on the forest-savanna fringe, although a few were created in forested areas. All these forest reserves, as mentioned with regard to other countries in the region, were trying to protect their timber production capacity against overexploitation. So these reserves did not have a very strong conservation status and could regularly be exploited. Thereafter, especially in the 1960s-1970s, some countries strengthened their protected area network. During these years, many parks were created in Cameroon (including Waza and Benoué, which had been reserves since the 1930s) while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, then called Zaïre) created the Kahuzi-Biega, Kundelungu, Maïko and Salonga parks. Many wildlife reserves and hunting estates were also created during that period.
As of the second half of the 1980s and portending the 1992 Rio international conference on the environment and sustainable development, initiatives were launched to face the challenge of degradation in the protected areas of Central Africa and the difficulty of justifying conservation actions in countries that were anxious to develop, meaning that they needed to exploit their natural resources. This change in outlook can be seen in the spread of conservation–development projects designed to incorporate conservation activities into local and national development drives. Another important change resulted from the first global IUCN study, which focused on forest biodiversity conservation not only at the national level but, for the first time in Central Africa, at the regional level. This work led to the launch, in 1992, of the first regional conservation programme, the EU-funded ECOFAC programme. With this new, regional perspective, the region's national forestry services sought to organise themselves and created COMIFAC (Commission des Forêts d’Afrique Centrale) (Commission of Central African Forests) and then RAPAC (Réseau des Aires Protégées d’Afrique Centrale) (Central African Protected Areas Network). Many donors increased their financial support, and international NGOs started to settle in Central Africa on a long-term basis.
A small number of protected areas were created in the 1990s, but it was not until the 2000 and 2010 decades that a significant number of new protected areas were created in the region. Since 2000, regional dynamics, institutional and functional dynamics, have grown stronger. Regional cooperation now has a consultation mechanism, the PFBC (Congo Basin Forest Partnership) and a regional body, CEEAC (Economic Community of Central African States).
Bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements have been signed to improve the effectiveness of conservation policies and, more particularly, the management of protected areas, especially those that span national borders.
The protected areas networks now have better coverage of each country's biodiversity, and collaboration is taking shape in order to strengthen the effectiveness of protected areas management and combat large-scale, increasingly international poaching. We also see that the bodies in charge of the protected areas are acquiring greater autonomy.
At present, governments' financial difficulties and lack of investment in the protected areas (made worse by governance problems) combine with ever-growing environmental threats, inciting governments to consider delegated or shared management of their protected areas. Management is increasingly being delegated to private or non-governmental organisations – types of governance that differ from governance solely by state bodies. A certain decentralisation also seems to be taking hold.
Since the authorities responsible for managing the protected areas do not have the human, financial or material resources to manage all the protected areas in their care, some responsibilities have to be delegated to the rural populations and the private sector. This requires an analysis of the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of each protected area and how they can be shared among the various stakeholders.
Despite all these improvements, the protected areas networks are under constantly growing pressure, e.g. from hunting (like big-time ivory poaching) and, more recently, increasing pressure from new mining and drilling projects and large infrastructure projects such as dams and highways. Pressure on the ecological integrity of the protected areas is likely to increase considerably, whether pressure (incursions into forests, deforestation) or indirect (bushmeat hunting, land clearance for farming, etc.).
It will be vital to involve local communities in the conservation approach. It will require some difficult weighing up of economic pros and cons in protected sectors rich in mineral resources that the country will have to forego.
For more information and a complete review of the protected areas in Central Africa, see State of the Protected Areas 2015.