Successful forest protection in DRC hinges on community participation

first_imgForest covers at least 112 million hectares of the Democratic Republic of Congo.Studies from 2013 show that subsistence agriculture and the need for firewood threaten DRC’s forests, and new investments in the countries forests by industrial outfits could contribute to the problem.DRC’s leaders have signed on to international agreements and have begun to receive millions of dollars to finance projects aimed at keeping DRC’s forests standing, protecting global climate and reducing poverty. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s extensive forests seem like a bright spot in an otherwise-troubled country. With forests covering an area larger than Colombia, DRC has managed to sidestep the surge in losses that forest-rich countries in South America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere in Africa have suffered.It has become an important country partner in the UN’s REDD+ program. Short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries,” REDD+ promises DRC hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental and development work, coming from the governments of Norway, Germany, France, the U.K., and the EU. In exchange, the country’s leadership has agreed to preserve the country’s stockpile of carbon tucked away in the vegetation of its forests, estimated to be around 22 billion metric tons (48.5 trillion pounds).A calming of conflicts in the war-weary DRC too appears to be inching forward, pointing toward stability, if not prosperity, that the country hasn’t seen in decades.But concerns have arisen about the precarious foundation for DRC’s success – if it will weather a contentious standoff in which President Joseph Kabila has lingered in office past the end of his final term, and the postponement of presidential elections to 2018, for example – as well as how effective the country’s forest conservation will be in practice.As home to so much forest – pegged at somewhere between 112 million and 154 million hectares (between 432,434 and 594,597 square miles) depending on how it’s defined – DRC has a key role to play in achieving keeping the global average temperature below a 2-degree Celsius rise, laid out at the UN climate talks in Paris in 2015.Realizing gains for both forest conservation and development, however, is still a relatively new idea in DRC. To many of the country’s leaders, “It’s either logging or conservation,” said Lionel Diss, formerly with Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN), in an interview. The thought is that encouraging international investment in logging concessions, as well as other extractive industries such as mining, will bring economic development in tow.The rainforest in DRC, with smoke trails where farmers are readying their fields for planting. Photo by John C. CannonTackling poverty and deforestationRelying on industrial operations alone to drag economic development upward through job creation and profitable exports at the expense of forests and without sorting out local communities’ rights just doesn’t make sense, Diss argues. “There is no evidence in Central Africa that logging has brought sustainable development.”Even so, blame for recent deforestation in DRC, where conflict and political instability have dissuaded many outside corporations from making investments in logging, mining, and agriculture, is often pinned on the people living in or near the forests.According to a series of 2013 studies released by the UN REDD+ Program, subsistence farming – which often employs ‘slash-and-burn’ techniques – and fuelwood collection contributes to around 40 percent of deforestation in the country. More than half of forest degradation – deterioration but not necessarily complete removal – also comes from the search for fuelwood. People collect wood for use in cook fires directly, or it’s often burned with little access to air over a long period of time to make energy-dense charcoal.The UN REDD+ reports were meant to be a critical step toward a better understanding of the landscape and what’s leading to deforestation and degradation in DRC’s forest, one that will allow REDD+ investment in the country to succeed. But the studies acknowledge a shift in the causes of deforestation that may be on the horizon for DRC.The reports’ authors, including researchers from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), universities, NGOs in DRC, and the UN Environment Program, also found that 40 percent of deforestation came from commercial agriculture, aa figure that could increase with a more favorable business climate.Other researchers have picked up on the trend toward industrialization in DRC and other forested countries, as well as the repercussions for forests.“As political and economic stability has entered the region, there has been an increasing rate of deforestation,” said Gillian Galford, an earth systems scientist at the University of Vermont.In 2015 Galford and her colleagues suspected that DRC’s low deforestation rates wouldn’t hold as the situation became more promising for natural resource investments. Using what scientists have learned about the pattern of deforestation in other parts of the world, her team built a computer model that mapped out three different scenarios: deforestation that continues on the current path; installation of a large-scale conservation solution such as REDD+; and allowing agricultural development to come in more or less unchecked.In the model, forests fared the best under conservation, socking away substantial amounts of carbon, while agricultural development led to a hemorrhage of 212 million metric tons (467 million pounds) of carbon a year over the coming two and a half decades.Those conclusions present a serious conundrum for anyone looking to elevate the living standards for the two-thirds of DRC’s citizens living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.“If you look at sub-Saharan Africa writ large, agricultural development is certainly one of the largest challenges,” Galford said. While the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century boosted standards of living in many other parts of the world, she pointed out that its sweep largely bypassed sub-Saharan Africa.But the spike in unintended knock-on effects that often accompany large-scale development hasn’t typically been accounted for in places like DRC – in particular, what happens with the construction of new roads.“In the DRC, much like the Amazon, we see that deforestation is very much related to roads,” said Galford, and the lack of roads DRC is one reason for the persistence of forest in the country.A 2014 study in the Brazilian Amazon revealed that almost 95 percent of deforestation was within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of roads or 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of rivers – which, just as in the Amazon, play the role of de facto highways through the Congo Rainforest.“Roads provide access to areas, and that can lead to further deforestation or degradation,” Galford added.One reason for the persistence of DRC’s forests has been the lack of roads, but increased natural resource development could change that in the future. Photo by John C. CannonNo one-size-fits-all solutionsEven as things stand, just blaming small-scale farmers for destroying forest won’t solve the problem, Diss of RFN said. Not all traditional farming has the same impact on the landscape.“One cannot generalize slash-and-burn activities,” he said. In fact, he pointed out, when farmed areas are rotated and allowed to regenerate, “It is actually sustainable forestry.”“This is the case in many areas in the rainforest, where local communities have driven slash-and-burn in a traditional manner and where they follow customary rules as to land use and forest management that do contribute to rainforest protection.”A problem with slash-and-burn arises when large-scale developments such as logging concessions open new areas of previously remote forests with roads and the settlements that typically follow. Diss pointed to the area around the city of Kisangani on the Congo River, where this type of agriculture “directly connected to logging activities” has been a significant source of deforestation.“Slash-and-burn, charcoal and so-called small-scale [or] artisanal illegal logging are serious problems around major urban areas,” he said. Kisangani, located in central DRC, is the third largest urban are in the country. “There, these activities can indeed be worsened [or] encouraged by industrial logging, and may often be conducted by external actors, not local communities,” Diss added.RFN and its partners in DRC contend that the recognition of traditional claims to the land should be an integral part of the solution. And current research supports that argument.Many policymakers and organizations concerned about both human development and the conservation of forests hold up REDD+ as the best hope for integrating what can appear to be conflicting goals at times. But how this strategy is accomplished is a critical question, said Pieter Moonen, a biological engineer from the University of Leuven in Belgium.“You have to adapt your strategy according to the specific conditions and the specific reasons that people are deforesting,” Moonen said.In a 2016 study, Moonen and his Belgian and Congolese colleagues found that the amount that individuals deforest varies quite a bit based on factors like distance from towns, the size of the local population, and local culture.The team concluded that without considering what’s causing deforestation locally and why – which may vary from community to community – REDD+ won’t be as likely to succeed.A better understanding of local contexts may shed light on why certain conservation efforts might not have the intended impact. For example, a strategy might advocate a transition from slash-and-burn agriculture for subsistence to cash-generating orchards. The problem, Moonen said, is that those trees may take several years to bear fruit.“[Slash-and-burn farmers] need alternatives the next day, not in two or three years, because they don’t have any – or very little – reserves,” he said. “People are still in survival mode, in which they want results quite soon.”Subsistence farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture in DRC. Photo by John C. CannonRights to the landCrucial to the participation of local communities in conservation is a discussion about their rights to the land, Diss said. And yet, proponents in DRC and at international organizations of a test project area seen as an example of the promise of REDD+ have tiptoed around the issue of community rights to the land.The $70-million REDD+ project began in 2016 in the newly formed province of Maï-Ndombe, which stretches northeast of the “megalopolis” of Kinshasa. A World Bank program called the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, or FCPF, has provided the initial funding.In a summary of the project published in January 2016, the FCPF said the work in Maï-Ndombe is seen by DRC’s government as “a first step in implementing the country’s national REDD+ strategy at jurisdictional level, as a model for green development in the Congo Basin, [and] a key test of climate action on the African continent.”The project’s designers plan to bolster conservation and discourage deforestation through activities to improve farming techniques; to introduce long-term cash crops like coffee, rubber, and oil palm; and to launch forest regeneration projects for charcoal production. About 80 percent of Maï-Ndombe is covered in forest, totaling some 9.8 million hectares, and the province provides a significant amount of wood and charcoal for the cook stoves of many residents in Kinshasa, a city of roughly 10 million people.Despite earlier claims that project leaders would involve community leaders in the project, Diss said they haven’t followed through.“Taking into consideration how hastened and superficial the consultation process has been in the area, how little has been done to identify and secure local communities’ tenure rights, and how timid support to community-based rainforest management is,” he said, “it’s not a good sign that Maï-Ndombe will serve as the template for the rest of the country.”Other organizations have highlighted these concerns and advocated a less-hurried approach to putting DRC’s REDD+ strategy into action.A makeshift bridge in DRC. Photo by John C. CannonREDD+ letter days aheadStill, Diss said the government has made strides toward acknowledging community rights and tailoring project work to their needs.He said that the letter of intent laying out the $200 million in REDD+ funding for DRC through the Central African Forest Initiative includes the first “explicit” reference to the “protection of indigenous peoples’ rights” in DRC, not just their needs. That inclusion, he said, was the result of sustained advocacy by the Rainforest Foundation Norway and other international and Congolese NGOs.But it’s not just a question of ethics. Keeping communities engaged and formalizing their rights to the land makes good conservation sense, Diss said.“Local communities … have been playing a role in forest management for many, many years,” he said. “That’s a potential that should be used in a national REDD+ plan.”The goal now is to maintain DRC’s status as a high-forest, low-deforestation country, while proving to the continent and the world that a strategy as global as REDD+ can work. REDD+ has potential to slow the emissions from forest destruction and provide poor countries with funds for development, but as research in DRC and elsewhere is proving, it will only do that if it’s implemented properly.The solution is far from one-size-fits-all, researchers say, and it will depend on the earnest commitment of local communities.For DRC, as the light of economic and political stability flickers on the horizon, the question is more basic. The country’s forests have survived decades of dysfunction, conflict and failed governance.Now, they stand on the leading edge of a global climate solution. They’re attracting the attention of donor countries and at the same time international corporations looking for new places to develop while also bringing the promise of economic prosperity. Will they survive this ‘success’?CITATIONS:Galford, G. L., Soares-Filho, B. S., Sonter, L. J., & Laporte, N. (2015). Will Passive Protection Save Congo Forests? PloS one, 10(6), e0128473.Moonen, P. C., Verbist, B., Schaepherders, J., Meyi, M. B., Van Rompaey, A., & Muys, B. (2016). Actor-based identification of deforestation drivers paves the road to effective REDD+ in DR Congo. Land Use Policy, 58, 123-132.UN Environmental Program. (2013). Qualitative study of the causes and agents of deforestation and forest degradation in a post-conflict DRC.UN-REDD Program. (2013). Qualitative study of the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in the DRC.UN-REDD Program. (2013). Quantitative study of the variables explaining deforestation and forest degradation in the DRC: data from the field.UN-REDD Program. (2013). Quantitative study of the variables explaining deforestation and forest degradation in the DRC: data from remote sensing, and historical and statistical analysis.UN-REDD Program. (2013). Summary report presenting and comparing results from the various studies undertaken on the causes of deforestation and forest degradation in the DRC.FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page. 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