DAKAR, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gabon has signed an $18 million deal with donors to tackle deforestation and cut its carbon emissions by half as part of a wider plan to protect the tropical forests of the Congo Basin. One of the world's most forested countries, Gabon is the second African nation, after the Democratic Republic of Congo, to sign an agreement with the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), launched in 2015 and backed by European donor nations.
The initiative, which also covers Central African Republic, Cameroon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea, aims to restart protection efforts in the Congo Basin - a target for expansion of palm oil plantations as available land in Indonesia dwindles.
Protecting forests is widely seen as one of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce the emissions driving global warming. Loss and degradation of forests account for about 15 percent of emissions each year, conservation groups say.
"This agreement is a big step forward," Vidar Helgesen, Norway's climate and environment minister and chairman of the CAFI, said in a statement published late on Tuesday.
"Gabon is committing to measures that, if implemented, would preserve about 98 percent of its rainforests," Helgesen added.
Forests in the Congo Basin cover about two million sq km - nearly the size of Mexico - but are shrinking by 5,600 sq km a year.
The small, central African nation aims to cut its emissions by half by 2025 - compared with 2005 levels - by establishing a national land-use plan, implementing a system to monitor forests and natural resources, and improving governance of its forests.
The CAFI requires countries to create national investment plans to address the pressures driving deforestation, and aims to slow illegal logging and burning of forests that are vital to millions of people and endangered animals, such as gorillas.
It is backed by funding from the European Union, Norway, Britain, France and Germany, and technical advice from Brazil.
"Gabon could set a standard for sustainable development that could inspire other countries in Central and Western Africa," said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Magdy Martinez-Soliman.
"By accelerating reforms, the country will engage on a genuine green economy path that offers solutions for both climate and agriculture, and is attractive for green private sector investments more generally," he added in a statement.