The talks in the Congolese capital on Saturday brought together heads of state and government, civil society, and African and Western logging companies with the aim of coordinating local and global efforts to preserve Africa's rainforests.

French President Jacques Chirac was the only leader from an industrialised country at the one-day talks.

He stressed that tackling illegal logging was the priority objective.

Almost six years after the first such summit in Yaounde, Cameroon's President Paul Biya said some pride could be taken in such steps in the right direction. However, regional leaders were outspoken in saying the industrialised world should help.

The participants signed a treaty giving legal backing to COMIFAC, a grouping of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, which together make up the forest tracts, the second biggest in the world after the Amazon.

COMIFCAC was launched in Yaounde in 1999, but made little progress on the ground, having failed to win financial support from Western donors and creditors.

Certifying timber

Practical measures included a recommendation formally presented by the host country Congo, that a certification scheme be introduced for timber just as one has for diamonds, in a bid to eradicate illegal logging the way the other measure clamps down on a "blood trade" in gems for weapons.

Leaders drew up a 10-year plan
aimed at saving Africa's forests

With chaotic and unlicensed timber production come inroads into forests which endanger wildlife, a key issue for non-governmental organisations with a stake in the talks.

Africa's tropical forest stretches over more than 2.3 million sq km, making it the planet's second oxygen lung. But it is shrinking at a rate of 8000sq km per year, plagued by illegal logging, excessive poaching and ecological damage.

Chirac spoke as France replaced the United States as partnership coordinator for COMIFAC, which includes representatives of the seven African countries, timber companies and ecological associations.

Increased surveillance

The French leader said surveillance of illegal logging would be stepped up, with customs controls at entry and departure points for forestry operators.

"In the Congo basin, 800,000 hectares of forest are destroyed each year and this rate will increase because of population growth and economic development," he said.

African leaders recommitted to cooperation at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2001, but disagreements over funding have held back its implementation.

"Basically, countries from the region want to manage aid directly, while international creditors want to maintain control over their contributions," one expert said.

The ambitious proposals made under the scheme were based on a projected budget of $1.6 billion for the period running from 2004 to 2013.

Only France and the United States have contributed to the programme, donating $65 million and $53 million respectively.