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African Leaders Work Out How to Make Biodiversity Pay

High in the rain forest canopy, a lemur with orange, black and white fur leaps among the branches to cries of delight from onlookers below.

"It's brilliant," said Sonja Debeer, a South African tourist craning her neck to follow the exotic lemur known as a diadamed sifakas. "We come from Africa, where everything is dangerous. Here, everything is gentle."

Madagascar, perhaps best known in the Northern Hemisphere for last year's hit animated film of the same name, is the only place in the world with wild lemurs.

After decades of rampant logging and other practices that destroyed 90 percent of its unique rain forest, the island nation off the coast of southern Africa is now investing in nature.

Touting itself as a destination of unmatched natural wonder, Madagascar is protecting its remaining environmental riches in hopes of gaining long-term benefit for its people.

"People who think that development and conservation cannot go hand-in-hand are wrong," President Marc Ravalomanana said Tuesday at the opening of a major international symposium on Africa in the capital, Antananarivo.

Organized by Conservation International, a Washington-based environmental group, the five-day conference of more than 400 delegates will examine how to use Africa's unmatched biodiversity to ease poverty and lay a foundation for sustainable development.

"In Africa and elsewhere, let us all put an end to the exploitation of natural resources for one-time payoffs, and instead develop strategies for using them sustainably, in ways that will benefit all people," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement before the conference.

Following in Madagascar's footsteps, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea announced Tuesday that it was creating a new national forest of more than 1.2 million acres and establishing a $15 million conservation trust fund.

Fortunato Ofa Mbo, the former Spanish colony's minister of fisheries and the environment, told the conference the new national forest would increase Equatorial Guinea's total protected territory to 37 percent of the tiny country nestled between Cameroon and Gabon on Africa's western coast. That is one of the highest percentages of any country in the world.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf also appeared in a videotaped statement to announce her government would make forest conservation a key component of development policies after years of ruinous civil war.

Johnson-Sirleaf said new regulations would seek a balance between the development benefits from logging, including job creation and foreign exchange, and the benefits from conserving forests that provide clean air and water, food and other vital resources.

"My government is committed to protecting these benefits," she said, announcing that legislation is being prepared to create a $30 million conservation trust fund that will finance the creation and maintenance of new protected areas. "We need to invest in the future of our people."

Protecting nature means safeguarding the cheapest and most effective source of clean water, food, natural resources and other benefits of ecosystem services, said Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier.

"The challenge is how to maximize these benefits in a sustainable way through biodiversity conservation, so that they exist in perpetuity," Mittermeier said. "That is exactly what the Madagascar symposium will be tackling."

One strategy is branding, in which developing nations such as Madagascar market their unmatched nature as ecotourism destinations.

Such policies signal stability and control of natural resources to the international community, attracting increased foreign investment, said Juan Carlos Bonilla, head of Conservation International's Central Africa program.

"It's something we've seen happening in places like Costa Rica and Belize," he said. "They have progressive environmental policies and they also have liberal economic frameworks. While unrelated, the two have worked well to attract both investment and eco-tourists."

Madagascar has dozens of species of lemurs along with colorful birds and frogs, huge bats known as Madagascar flying foxes, giant plants and flowers found nowhere else on Earth.

Many are threatened with extinction. By protecting their habitat, Madagascar invests in its nature as a commodity that cannot be matched by even the most powerful nations.

Ravalomanana announced 3,834 square miles of new protected areas last December as part of his 2003 pledge to triple the island nation's total protected territory to 23,000 square miles by 2008.

At the Mantadia and Andasibe national parks, three hours by road from Antananarivo, new hotels and a locally run guiding association help attract a tourism trade that has increased from 7,000 visitors in 1990 to 28,000 last year.

The global focus on climate change has played a part.

Near Andasibe, Association Mitsinjo is growing seedlings of native tree species to plant as new forests that will ingest fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere, mostly from industrialized nations.

The carbon-consuming role of the forests will be sold as carbon credits on the global market under a system given impetus by the Kyoto Protocol that limits fossil fuel emissions in member countries, said Rainer Dolch of Mitsinjo, a private initiative specializing in conservation and ecotourism.

Impoverished local communities also benefit from re-established forests that provide traditional resources such as fruits, medicines, fibers and housing materials, as well as higher yields in their subsistence farming of native species, Dolch said.

Persuading subsistence farmers to take part in the planting expected to begin in January has been challenging, due to the abstract concept of a forest having economic value.

"They wondered how they can get money for nothing," Dolch said.

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