The Congo Rainforest Basin is part of some 314 million hectares (1.2 million sq miles) of primary rainforest – the oldest, densest and most ecologically significant kind. This rainforest plays a crucial role in the stability of the world’s climate, and spans across six countries in central Africa: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. By comparison, the Amazon contains 519 million hectares (2 million sq miles) of primary rainforest. Although according to more recent research from The Royal Society the term primary rainforest might not be fully correct. Their research shows that big parts of the rainforest have already been partly modified or even domesticated over the past millennia.
Taller and more resilient to climate change than the Amazon rainforest, the Congo Basin’s trees soak up some 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year and store one third more carbon over the same area of land than those of the Amazon. Typically more tree species are found in one hectare of the Congo Basin rainforest than all native tree species of the UK combined. It also houses the world’s most extensive tropical peat land, an estimated 10,000 species of tropical plants and endangered species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, such as forest elephants, lowland and mountain gorillas.
Palm oil plantations, logging and mining are contributing to deforestation, encroaching on animal habitats and disrupting the balance of ecosystems. However, one of the historically significant drivers of deforestation of the DR Congo’s rainforest has been small-scale charcoal production and slash-and-burn agriculture – unlike in the Amazon, where industrial-scale logging and agriculture has driven the forest’s decline.
Primary rainforest loss in the Congo Basin more than doubled between the first and second half of the period from 2002 to 2019, according to satellite data analysis by Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute. In 2019 alone, 590,000 hectares were lost (an area more than half the size of Jamaica). Some 93% of forest loss between 2000 and 2014 in the DR Congo was due to smallholder agriculture, according to Tyukavina’s research.
Through a new scheme the government of DR Congo now offers the communities that live in the rainforest to obtain recognized ownership of their land. Each community, working with local government, must therefore demarcate the concessions with the blessing of neighboring villages through participatory mapping to avoid disputes, carry out biodiversity and socioeconomic studies on the land, and develop simple forest management and land use plans to outline the proposed activities and how they will be done sustainably. In return no one else will be hunting, logging or drilling on their land.
“The corn grows so quickly it’s difficult for us to process all of it,” says Patrick Wasa-Nziabo, from the village Nkala, deep in the tropical rainforest of the DR Congo. “The earth here is so rich. It nourishes us in many ways. For us, it is sacred.”
The relationship between the people of Nkala’s and the forest goes back generations, but in one fundamental way it has recently changed. Under the revolutionary scheme the 300 villagers of Nkala were granted 4,100 hectares (16 square miles) of forest in December 2018. This meant, for the first time in their history, the community had the legal right to own and manage the forest they live in. Two years on, early signs suggest that community ownership could become a powerful tool in halting the decline of the Congo Basin rainforest, while alleviating poverty in one of the world’s poorest regions.
For Patrick Wasa-Nziabo and the other locals in his remote village of Nkala, crippling unemployment had long been an issue. In a country where extreme poverty, which is greater in rural areas, sees 72% of the population living on less than $1.90 a day, the allure of illegally catching wildlife within the forest proved too tempting. “Just one successful hunt could pay for a year’s school fees for your child,” says Wasa-Nziabo. “It could guarantee that your family eats properly for a while without worrying about a lack of money.”
But since Nkala was granted its concession just over two years ago, there has been a wave of crop diversification on family farms – bringing in corn, pineapples and manioc – to insure against more extreme, unpredictable weather and to broaden potential income streams for the community. This is one of the requirements for sustainable management of the concessions. Each community, working with local government, must demarcate the concessions with the blessing of neighbouring villages through participatory mapping to avoid disputes, carry out biodiversity and socioeconomic studies on the land, and develop simple forest management and land use plans to outline the proposed activities and how they will be done sustainably. Co-operatives have been formed to sell produce such as weaved mats from the palms of the arrowroot tree, providing work for all of the village’s women.
The belief behind the community concessions is that villages with a recognized permanent ownership of the land have a stronger incentive to manage it in a sustainable way. And there’s evidence supporting that premise, demonstrated through research by the World Resources Institute into 14 forest-rich countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The institute found that communities “maintain or improve their forests’ carbon storage” when they have ownership.
Early evidence in the DR Congo experiment is bearing this out too. Analysis by the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), a non-profit monitoring and facilitating the implementation of the DR Congo’s community concessions, found the rate of deforestation in 57 community concessions in 2019 was 23% lower than the national average and 46% lower than in logging concessions. The data, which stretches back to 2001, shows that the traditionally occupied lands (where local people have been managing the forest as effectively their own) have historically had lower levels of deforestation.
More than two million hectares of the DR Congo’s community rainforest concessions have or are in the process of being awarded to date, according to a database maintained by RFUK. The concessions range from the vast Salonga National Park to the conflict-ridden North Kivu. The RFUK estimates that up to 75 million hectares – an area of land more than five times the size of England – are potentially available for communities under the scheme.
However, the administration costs to realize these ownerships, are significant. While communities aren’t charged application fees, figures published by Rainforest Foundation UK reveal that the financing needed for two of the concessions it supported in the DR Congo, including meetings, paperwork and legal compliance, came at a price of $109,000 and $153,000 respectively. For communities where many, if not all are living in poverty, such sums are impossibly high.
“It’s a challenge,” says Serge Ngwato, Greenpeace Africa’s manager for the community concession in Lokolama. “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.” Another option can be to use the income from small scale, but long term sustainable (community) tourism to pay part of these costs.
It is time to exchange ideas, learn from each other and live in a more sustainable way with the rainforest, instead of only from the rainforest. Combining modern science and society with ancient old knowledge and experience from indigenous people like those who lived for millennia in the Amazon Rainforest. Indigenous technologies were not only adaptations to changing forest conditions, but also intentional actions to manage those changes. They provide a longitudinal view of how human populations actually adapted to changes in the past and how this effected forest composition and distributions. Past systems provide clues to how people responded to opportunities and challenges created by climate change, and offer ideas for present efforts to reduce global warming.