Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

[Remarks as Delivered]

HAYDE FITZPATRICK: Approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide rely on forests for their livelihoods, especially the rural poor. How is the U.S. government partnering with African countries to increase economic opportunities while strengthening conservation efforts?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much Hayde. And let me just say thanks to the other panelists. And let me single out, if I could, Chairman Meeks, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairperson. He is not kidding when he says he places Africa first – places Africa on the agenda. He has also worked tremendous magic in a very polarized political climate to sustain bipartisan support for so many of the programs that we at USAID get to do in partnership with you all out in the real world. And one of the things I really appreciate about Chairman Meeks is he lives by the great slogan of Bryan Stevenson, death penalty lawyer here in the United States, which is – get close, get close. Chairman Meeks is always out in the field, looking to see what will work and then coming back to Congress and putting it on the map here in Washington. Mr. Chairman, it's great to have you with us.

I also want to thank President Ramkalawan, having just heard his powerful summons – really on so many fronts – that I would agree don't get nearly the attention they deserve. This emphasis on middle income countries, or those countries classified as such, who might in some cases experience great inequality, although the mean is middle income. Or in the case of the Seychelles and other island states experiencing these climate shocks that demand financing, and yet our institutions right now are not structured to be as responsive as people in those circumstances demand – mentioning oceans and ocean plastics – much like emissions – not something that too many countries here are responsible for, and yet if you're a coastal state or an island state, you’re living with the consequences.

So while the question posed to me is about forests – I just want to assure you, I think that we at USAID are very seized with the issues that you have touched upon, and of course work in 100 countries that are experiencing conservation challenges of all kinds. I'm hopeful that we will have an ocean plastics treaty one of these days that gets enforced and that ensures that there are rules of the road there.

So as it relates to the question about forests and trees, as has been said, over a fourth of the African continent is covered with trees. That is an area more than twice the size of India. The trees in this forest keep our air clean and our emissions down. We've heard about the Congo Basin rainforest, which alone absorbs enough carbon to offset the entire continent’s emissions each year. But an astonishing four million hectares of this forest – that's an area the size of Switzerland – disappears every year. That's a deforestation rate that is unfortunately double the already troubling global average.

We, in the United States, to be clear, are aware that we are on shaky ground when we talk about deforestation elsewhere. Because actually in this country, before the Europeans arrived, over half of our land was forest. And today, we are far closer to a third. We have learned – all of us collectively, and we just need to put these lessons to use – that it is possible to both draw resources from our forests and protect them at the same time. This was President Tshisekedi’s message as well.

In Gabon, which Secretary Blinken also mentioned, as other industries are becoming less lucrative – many there have turned to logging as a way to diversify the nation's economy. But rather than slashing the rainforest that covers more than half of Gabon, the country has committed to maintaining 85 percent of their current forest cover through sustainable forest practices. Simple steps, like only allowing lumberjacks to cut a few trees per hectare, making logging companies use more environmentally friendly and less destructive practices when cutting and transporting timber, and increasing oversight to prevent illegal logging operations. Sustainable forestry allows Gabon to use the resources of the forest without inflicting harm. This allows the forest time to regrow while still delivering the economic dividends that are so needed for citizens. Forest management plans like these are a crucial way to protect our forests and to benefit from them. But in Africa, just 25 percent of forests are covered by such plans, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation and illegal logging. And illegal logging is not some small nuisance, it is a global industry worth more than $150 billion. And in some countries, illegal logging accounts for 90 percent of deforestation.

In recent years, this exploitation has cost the people of Africa nearly $17 billion annually in revenue – what you wouldn't do to have that revenue on hand to invest in social services for citizens or social safety nets, in light of the number of shocks befalling so many countries. We know that any kind of state corruption is essentially development in reverse. It deprives citizens of the essential resources they deserve, both natural and economic, while stifling investment and capping economic growth and social mobility – all to enrich corrupt elites. That's why our government is working with partners throughout Africa to protect the continent’s forests from illegal logging, and other bad practices like unplanned agricultural expansion, so that people can sustainably use their forests for their livelihoods for generations to come.

As I close here, just to say, last year, President Biden, many of you know, announced a $9 billion commitment over the next eight years to conserve global forests. To bolster the President's plan, this year at USAID, we launched a new phase of our largest land management program in Africa, which supports the conservation and sustainable management of the Congo Basin and its rainforests. In this plan, the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, builds on nearly 30 years of efforts that we've made across six countries the DRC, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea – investing $600 million in biodiversity research, digital mapping and conservation, economic development, and climate mitigation.

We will continue to build on our decades of commitment to preserving forests because we know just how essential this work is, and how possible it is yet again, to both benefit economically from forests and to protect them.

Thank you so much.

USAID at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Samantha Power
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