A rainforest in Sierra Leone has won protection from the country's government for an indefinite period in a move heralded as one of the first examples of a state using forest conservation to cut its carbon emissions.
The news came as the UN climate change conference in Bali enters its critical final week. Thousands of delegates from almost 200 countries are attending the summit, to discuss how to cut greenhouse gas emissions after current Kyoto protocol targets expire in 2012. So far, progress has been slow, with the US remaining the only developed country to have refused to ratify the treaty.
President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone is expected today to back the plans to make the 185,000-acre Gola Forest, about half the size of London, the nation's second national park. This will protect at least 50 species of mammal, 2,000 different plants and 274 species of bird, 14 of which are close to extinction.
It is hoped that Gola, close to the Liberian border in the south-east of the west African country, will become the flagship site in a network of national parks planned by the President. Six more are due to be established in the future, to develop the country's tourist industry as it recovers from the civil war that tore it apart in the 1990s.
The Gola project is being jointly funded by the European Commission, the French government, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the United States-based Conservation International.
Alistair Gammell, the international director of the RSPB, said: "We are helping the government turn a logging forest into a protected forest. Huge amounts of carbon will be saved and the site is an excellent example to those now involved in climate talks in Bali. It is showing how richer countries can help poorer countries protect wildlife, support local communities and tackle climate change."
More than 100,000 people from local communities will be paid annually to replace earlier royalties linked to logging and diamond mining in the forest, and scientists will be encouraged to study Gola's wildlife in the hope of creating a hub for the increasingly popular practice of eco-tourism.
The European Commission and the French government are contributing more than £3m towards the project, training hundreds of staff to patrol the forest's boundaries, monitor wildlife and run education programmes. A £6m trust fund is also being established to cover the park's running costs and the annual payments to local communities.
Gola is part of the Upper Guinea Forest, which once spread itself across five countries. Less than 30 per cent of it remains, following hundreds of years of aggressive deforestation for the sake of timber, agriculture and charcoal. The Conservation Society of Sierra Leone launched a project to save the forest 15 years ago, but during the civil war, from 1991 to 2002, work was suspended and the government became powerless to protect it. The forest is home to leopards, chimpanzees and forest elephants, as well as hundreds of rare species of bird.
Meanwhile, the President of Guyana, in South America, recently proposed placing his country's entire 50 million-acre forest, almost the combined size of England and Scotland, under a British-led international body in return for securing aid for sustainable development and technical assistance in switching to green industries.
The UN talks in Bali, which end on Friday, ran into problems yesterday when delegates failed to agree on a plan to promote trade in "green goods" , such as wind turbines and solar panels, between rich and poor countries.