Protecting the Heart of Africa: An Interview with TRIDOM’s Pauwel de Wachter

Ben Riddle
Nov 23, 2017 · 14 min read

In this article, the Landscape Finance Lab interviews Pauwel de Wachter, WWF TRIDOM Coordinator, and learns of an inspiring examples of landscape conservation taking shape within the heart of Africa.

Pauwel, WWF Central Africa Coordinator, stands on the new road Chinese engineers are building between Oesso and Sembe in northern Congo that cuts right through virgin forest. Photo: Mike Goldwater

Pauwel, thanks for taking the time to share your story. To begin, how did you first begin working in landscape conservation?

24 years ago, I began my career in the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon. All around me, I noticed that the forests were progressively being used for logging. Since these forests were as high in biodiversity as the (existing and proposed) protected areas, we started thinking about how we might connect the protected areas across borders to save as much as possible from degradation. At that time, many forests in the TRIDOM landscape were still intact, which means that when you went into the forest about 25 kilometers, you came to a place where animals had never encountered humans. Here you didn’t see any machete cuts at all — it was almost virgin territory.

In these days, there were some reserves in the early planning stage, so we started to promote the idea of a large connected trans-border conservation PA network and began to generate interest and involvement from other parties like the European Union’s ECOFAC program and the GEF. Soon thereafter the TRIDOM concept took off. The landscape conservation approach changed the dynamics, especially in terms of field collaboration and interest for the interzone forest, in between the existing PA’s.

We can get so caught up in complexity and forget the simplicity of our work Tell me about TRIDOM, in simple words. What’s the story? Who is involved? What’s the solution?

The TRIDOM (Tri-National Dja — Odzala — Minkebe) Landscape is a very large area — 178,000 km²- or more than 4 times Switzerland, and back in 1994 included the Dja Reserve in Cameroon, the original Odzala National Park in Republic of Congo, and proposed national parks in Minkebe in Gabon, as well as proposed Nki and Boumba Bek NP’s in Cameroon. In all these areas WWF was supporting the government in creating the new parks. The TRIDOM concept is about linking the isolated parks into a connected network while protecting the big forests that are in between these areas. We are still working on this front at present. Currently protected areas cover 24% of TRIDOM or 42,319 km², a sharp increase from the 4.6% (8,108 km² back in 1994).

TRIDOM has low human population density (1 inh/km²), and is for 97% covered by rainforests. Deforestation has been very low, but is increasing now in line with roadbuilding and increased interests in large scale agriculture.

In regards to stakeholders, there are many people involved. First, you have the three governments of Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. TRIDOM is recognized as a priority trans-border landscape by these governments. They all signed a formal agreement in 2004 that recognizes TRIDOM as a series of protected areas where the governments should engage in sustainable development in the interzone connecting these parks. In 2014, they also signed an anti-poaching agreement, which established the procedures for joint anti-poaching patrols across borders. This is now effectively happening across TRIDOM and bi-national patrol teams can enter up to 20 km into one country’s territory, which is quite innovative.

Apart from the governmental actors which include the Ministries in charge of forests, wildlife and protected areas and the PA agencies (in Gabon and Congo), the program is actively shaped by the conservation community, which includes WWF, African Parks, WCS, African Wildlife Foundation and ZSL, as well as private sector actors such as IFO which manages a 1.16 million wildlife rich FSC certified concession in Congo or SEFYD, a Chinese logging company exploiting in 1.2 million ha’s in TRIDOM’s heart. There are also a host of also have mining companies in the area that moved in 8 years ago to explore for iron-ore in the heart of the TRIDOM.

Ecoguards burn down an illegal poachers’ camp in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, northern Congo. No hunting is allowed in this area. Photo: Mike Goldwater

The landscape has been heralded as an “African Pilbara” and is recognised as an emerging iron-ore province. While the ore deposits are definitely there, the mining projects have not yet developed due to financial problems caused by the drop in iron-ore prices. With this said, these mining projects will eventually become very important actors in TRIDOM. While we could view this as a threat to the landscape, we also have to consider that these future mining projects can nurture sustainable development by helping to conserve forest connectivity and helping to combat elephant poaching.

And of course, you have the local people — the Bantu shifting cultivators in the villages, the Baka indigenous people, of which there are about 10,000 in the TRIDOM. And there are quite a lot of artisanal gold miners in the landscape. People live of hunting, fishing, cocoa cultivation and shifting agriculture. Others are engaged in artisanal gold mining. And traders are mostly of west african origin.

A community of Baka pygmy people, Sieh village, northern Congo. Some pygmy communities have been excluded from forest reserves because of poaching. However, studies by the World Bank have found that when traditional communities are given title to their land they protect the environment efficiently and cheaply. Photo: Mike Goldwater

How do you involve all of these stakeholders in the process of designing a large-scale landscape program?

TRIDOM is almost too big to work on it as a whole. Since its inception, we have had several TRIDOM-wide meetings that were supported by external partners, and the governments regularly meet under the COMIFAC (Central African Forest Commission) umbrella. With this said, we have found that stakeholder engagement is often most effective at the sub-landscape scale. For example, in the TRIDOM-Congo, we are working with logging companies to develop a plan for land that they set aside for conservation, which will help to create a new protected area that was initially intended for logging. We have done the same thing with a forest in Cameroon, which provides connectivity between Minkebe National Park in Gabon with the Dja Reserve in Cameroon.

This work has led to the creation of a conservation concession, which was originally requested by an iron-ore mining company. The concession has now been transformed into a new wildlife reserve. In the Northern Congo, we are supporting the government to create a new protected area and engaging local communities to build capacity for its stewardship. We have also helped to initiate land-use planning meetings in the Northern Congo and in Cameroon in order to identify land use planning priorities and areas for connectivity.

Through this work, we have learned that the most productive stakeholder engagement platforms are those that try to solve a concrete problem. While large scale engagement platforms can influence decision making, they have no real decision making power. With these insights in hand, we have focused our work at the sub-landscape scale, which is often the most effective place to make real change. This scale requires that we involve a subset of stakeholders around one particular issue, which is more viable than trying to involve everyone. For example, we are promoting a new protected area through a process that involves two logging companies, forty-four communities, government officials, and others. At this scale we can influence and drive real change. We have learned to only host trans-border meetings involving several countries if we have a topic to resolve that absolutely needs the presence of two countries.

How do you begin to identify the right scale at which to work, where to begin and who to involve?

The TRIDOM is a big mosaic of protected areas and logging concessions, and many of these sites already have a certain level of management. For example, for a 21,000 sq km area in Northern Congo, we created a joint project with the government to set up a conservation structure for this land. It’s through this mechanism that we engage other stakeholders in the work of conservation, including anti-poaching efforts, community consultation, land use planning and collaborative work with the private sector. So we work at the level of smaller landscapes within the larger TRIDOM landscape, but without losing the bigger picture. To build the TRIDOM house it’s at the level of the country that you build the walls and the transborder collaboration is where you cement the walls together.

Tell me about a time when you’ve learned resilience while working on this landscape. What is one of your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge in the TRIDOM is with elephants. The landscape is a hot-spot for ivory poaching, and because of this TRIDOM has lost and is still losing a lot of elephants. Many large ivory seizures in Asia are often traced back to TRIDOM through DNA analysis. This is a crucial problem, because if we lose the elephants we lose them forever — it’s a problem of a highly irreversible nature also given low reproductive rates of forest elephants. Aside from this, elephant poaching and the ivory trade represents a huge ethical problem, as this is a case of a highly intelligent and social species being massacred in the most cruel ways for its ivory. The world should not allow this to happen. As WWF, we cannot protect the elephants everywhere, so we have to find places in the TRIDOM landscape where we can intervene to make a difference. That’s what we’re trying to do in Northern Congo, where WWF and the Ministry of the Congo signed a co-management agreement to manage Ntokou Pikounda NP in the TRIDOM. Other focal areas are South Cameroon, the northern Congo interzone between Odzala, Minkebe and Nki (including work in Gabon). Partners cover other areas such as African Parks managing the 13,000 km² Odzala NP and the Gabonese National Parks Agency heavily engaged in TRIDOM-Gabon on this front. The Eagle network is also quiet active in the area. However, the problem still remains because the forest is so large. It is really not easy to protect the elephants across such a big zone.

Our approach to dealing with this crisis has evolved as we have learned more about the nature of the problem. For example, we have learned that there is a big difference between law enforcement and anti-poaching. Before 2012, it was a rare occurrence if a poaching case led to a prison sentence after being taken to court. The law enforcement system was very weak, so in response we have placed a lot of emphasis on improving the process of working through the courts. As a result, the level of impunity has gone down. Looking back ten years ago, ivory poaching cases were rarely handled by the judicial system, as wildlife services believed that nothing would happen if they took someone to court. This has improved tremendously in recent years. For example, in Northern Congo in 2016 our project led to the conviction of 43 wildlife criminals with 80% of them to firm prison sentences of 3.5 Y on average. While this has been a change for the better, the ivory problem is still there.

The problem remains due to the high prices of ivory on the market, which have multiplied tenfold between 2006 and 2012. This means that a local villager can hunt one elephant and buy a motorbike as a result of the sale of ivory from that elephant. Local people want money for new consumer products like motorbikes and smartphones and ivory is a way to make quickly a sizeable amount of money. While local people in the TRIDOM are relatively poor, it cannot be accepted that poaching an elephant is a viable solution to escaping poverty. There are other things to do if you need to earn money. We do not advocate for stealing from others to escape poverty, so the same should be true for poaching.

Ekodek Gatien, WWF Park ranger in the Lobeke National Park, southern Cameroon, with guns and ivory captured from poachers. Photo: Mike Goldwater

How might we reduce poverty and improve livelihoods in the landscape to end poaching, aid conservation and foster sustainability?

This is where the conservation story often remains weak. Conservation doesn’t bring in big amounts of money to a region. What creates jobs are oil palm plantations, logging operations and mining. Conservation doesn’t even come close to matching these industries in terms of job creation. In addition, the TRIDOM does not benefit from tourism like other nations in Eastern or Southern Africa, where tourism is a driver of local economic development. In TRIDOM there are only two tourist camps, one in Ivindo and one in Odzala, and there are not many tourists. You can’t play that card here.

In light of these dynamics, we are in the early process of designing community incentive schemes to address the challenge. In TRIDOM we have several communities that are heavily involved in elephant poaching. One part of the solution is to try to get these communities completely out of elephant poaching by providing them economic incentives linked to absence of poaching — a kind of conservation performance bonus for communities. These schemes would be a complementary solution that could be coupled with regular classic anti-poaching patrols. Communities would thus be rewarded for conservation, rather than only feeling like conservation is a set of restrictions and ranger patrols.

How will these schemes be funded?

That is the question. In the pilot phase with a few villages, it would not be too difficult, but as the approach scales up it could become quite complicated. We could use help from the Lab on this front.

How did you first engage with the Landscape Finance Lab, and how has your work changed since collaborating with the Lab?

In 2016, I developed a concept for a TRIDOM Conservation Bank to submit to the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, and so came in contact with the Landscape Finance Lab and Paul who was screening concepts. The idea of the concept was that we needed to work on preventative measures to protect the TRIDOM, and then later offer conservation credits to the mining companies. Further brainstorming with the LFL led to the idea for a TRIDOM Green Investment Partnership. We are now in the process of making some of this real.

Through the Lab, we are developing a robust plan for the future that includes linking corridors and protected areas with carbon finance, and setting up a protective mechanism that improves logging practices for companies that are not logging in a sustainable way. We have quite a few ideas of what we want to do, and are working on our plan for accomplishing them.

A mobile logging crew cut timber from a large hardwood tree in southern Cameroon. The local community agreed to fell this old tree and will share in the sale of the timber. Photo: Mike Goldwater

The Lab has helped us to think about new forms of financing and structuring this work, and can help us reach out to investors and others in the financial world. For example, if an impact investor bought up one of the strategically located logging companies in the TRIDOM and transformed it into a sustainable logging and conservation company, that would generate positive social and environmental impacts that would have an effect on the entire region. One logging company currently owns 12,000 sq km in the heart of the landscape, but imagine if someone acquired this operation and developed it into an integrated logging and conservation company that also engaged the local community. This could be a really interesting opportunity.

What impact do you see the Lab having on the world of conservation at large?

The Lab can serve as a bridge between green finance including impact investors and landscape conservation by connecting these worlds and make them more coherent. Right now, the Lab is playing a key role in transforming large zones and ensuring that green funding is linked up to meaningful opportunities to drive change within landscapes. The real strength of the Lab is that it can help transform landscape programs in the idea phase into fundable programs that make a real impact. The Lab can help with concept development, match programs with the resources we need for early stage program development and assist us as we work towards implementation.

For example, we are currently exploring a concept with the Lab that involves a large piece of land in TRIDOM. If the government does not create an oil palm concession for this land, then it can be converted into a carbon concession with short benefits for local communities from the World Banks Forest Carbon Partnership Fund. The 55,000 Atama concession I’m talking about is part of an elephant corridor between Odzala and Ntokou Pikounda NP’s, and also has an extremely high great ape density, something like 4–8 great apes per km². If that land would be developed for oil palm, the impact of this activity would cause 30,000 new people (workers, families, secondary services) to move into that almost uninhabited area. This drastic change in demographics would not only contribute to deforestation, but could also weaken the entire natural system over a much larger area as for example the bushmeat hunting would tremendously increase.

Our efforts to develop a carbon project with the Lab as an alternative to that oil palm concession is the key opportunity on the table at the moment. I’m hoping that the Lab can help us to develop this work. It won’t be easy to get there, but we have to try.

What do you need right now? How can others help your work?

My work is focused on three key priorities at the moment. The first is to fundraise and improve management on the ground to protect elephants in the landscape. If we don’t support the active protection of elephants, they will simply disappear — that’s assured. Secondly, we are working to keep TRIDOM a connected whole by creating a network of protected corridors within the area. Thirdly, we are seeking to improve the practices of the private sector: the logging companies, mining companies and hydro companies in the region. We have a big opportunity to transform company practices by changing policies and incentive structures within large scale investment and finance programs that support the mines and hydro dams. We can always use new ideas and help on any of these fronts.

Ecoguards listen for the sounds of monkeys and other wild-life during a dawn patrol looking for signs of poachers in the Messok Dja National Park. Photo: Mike Goldwater

What are you learning about the work of facilitating programs like this one that might be useful for others to consider?

I would encourage people to be visionary and ambitious in terms of your spatial view of the landscape, while at the same time working at a scale where you can truly influence decision making and impact on the ground. This is often the sub-landscape scale. However, this is not contradictory with having a broader, large scale vision for a huge landscape like TRIDOM. I have seen that large scale platforms are not always efficient. Knowing the right scale to work on and the right timing to engage the right partners is critical.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

The most rewarding thing is to make concrete change. For example, the stabilisation of an elephant population like the elephants or the creation of a protected area. The greatest reward from our work comes when there is a fundamental change that is directly linked to our efforts.

Thanks for taking time to speak with us Pauwel!

For more information on Pauwel’s work on this landscape, check out TRIDOM’s program profile in the Landscape Lab incubator or email Pauwel directly:

The Landscape Finance Lab is an initiative of the WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature) and made possible through support from Climate-KIC and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

From the Earth

Stories from the field of change-makers working at the…

From the Earth

Stories from the field of change-makers working at the intersection of finance, markets and conservation with the WWF Landscape Finance Lab and partners. The Lab incubates, and supports projects at landscape scale for a living planet.

Ben Riddle

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Creative catalyst. Connector of dots. Shepherd of change. I’m passionate about equipping people to with the tools they need to pursue calling and purpose.

From the Earth

Stories from the field of change-makers working at the intersection of finance, markets and conservation with the WWF Landscape Finance Lab and partners. The Lab incubates, and supports projects at landscape scale for a living planet.