DRC: Community ownership a promising solution to save the Congo Basin (BBC)

| November 8, 2021

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Patrick Wasa-Nziabo eases dozens of kernels from a sun-dried cob into a large plastic bucket. The 31-year-old is sorting through the maize harvest from a patch of land less than a 30-minute walk from his village, Nkala, deep in the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC is home to the majority of the Congo Basin, the world's second-largest rainforest. In December 2018, 300 villagers of Nkala were granted ownership over 4,100 hectares of forest. This meant, for the first time in their history, that the community had the legal right to own and manage the forest they live in. So far, the results suggest that community ownership like this could be a powerful tool in halting deforestation in the Congo Basin rainforest, while alleviating poverty.

Patrick Wasa-Nziabo eases dozens of kernels from a sun-dried cob into a large plastic bucket. The 31-year-old is sorting through the maize harvest from a patch of land less than a 30-minute walk from his village, Nkala, deep in the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr. Wasa-Nziabo takes another cob, saying, “The maize grows so quickly it’s difficult for us to process all of it. The earth here is so rich. It nourishes us in many ways. For us, it is sacred.”

DRC is home to the majority of the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest. The people of Nkala’s relationship with this forest goes back generations, but in December 2018, it deepened when the 300 villagers of Nkala were granted ownership over 4,100 hectares of forest.

This meant, for the first time in their history, that the community had the legal right to own and manage the forest they live in. So far, the results suggest that community ownership like this could be a powerful tool in halting deforestation in the Congo Basin rainforest, while alleviating poverty.

The rainforest plays a crucial role in the stability of the world’s climate, with the Congo Basin’s trees soaking up more than one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

However, due to extreme heat, the trees are losing their ability to soak up carbon and the number of trees is diminishing due to industrial activity such as palm oil plantations, logging, and mining, as well as small-scale charcoal production and slash-and-burn agriculture.

The belief behind community ownership of the forest is that it gives villages a strong incentive to manage the forest in a sustainable way. And there’s evidence supporting this.

The Rainforest Foundation UK, or RFUK, is a non-profit organization that is monitoring and facilitating the implementation of the community forest ownership program in DRC. The organization found that the rate of deforestation in areas where communities own the forest is 23% lower than the national average.

The concept of community forestry was first mentioned in the 2002 national forestry code. Now, more than two million hectares of the rainforest are (or are in the process of being) awarded to communities to own. Estimates show that up to 75 million hectares are potentially available for communities to own.

Since Nkala was granted its ownership over a plot of the rainforest, there has been a wave of crop diversification on family farms, which brought new crops such as maize, pineapple, and manioc. These crops are more resilient to extreme, unpredictable weather and help to increase the number of avenues for the community to make money. Co-operatives have also been formed to sell produce and products such as weaved mats from the palms of the arrowroot tree, which provides work for village women.  

Each community that wants ownership over a plot of the rainforest must work with the local government to mark exactly where that plot of the rainforest begins and ends. This is done with the blessing of neighbouring villages to avoid disputes. The communities also develop simple forest management and land use plans to outline their economic activities, and how these activities will be done sustainably.

However, the costs of these requirements are high and many remote communities are not aware of the opportunity to own a plot of rainforest.

Serge Ngwato is Greenpeace Africa’s manager for the community rainforest ownership program in Lokolama. He says: “It’s a challenge. The technical requirements are currently too difficult for communities and it costs too much money. But this can be smoothed out by simplifying the legal processes and allowing communities to begin earning money through the model during the application.”

For residents who have the means and support to navigate the process, the result is an improved quality of life.

Mr. Wasa-Nziabo says, “Our lives are now even more connected with the forest than they were before. Our fates will be the same. That gives us great motivation.”

This story is based on an article written by Peter Yeung and published by BBC on January 7, 2021, titled “The bold plan to save Africa’s largest forest.” To read the full story, go to: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210107-congo-basin-a-bold-plan-to-save-africas-largest-rainforest?ocid=global_future_rss

Photo: Two men stand in a forest. Credit: Peter Yeung.