Up the river & paddling hard: Climate adaptation & mitigation in the Congo

LUKOLELA, Democratic Republic of Congo (14 November, 2012)_People in the remote town of Lukolela – 540 km from Kinshasa on the Congo River – are already feeling the effects of a changing climate, and with the help of a new project, are planning ways to reduce its impact on their daily lives.

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Frederic Nkakeduta lost some of his sheep to a ferocious wind last February. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

LUKOLELA, Democratic Republic of Congo (14 November, 2012)_Every year around March 3, the villagers of Lukolela were prepared. They did what they could to protect their houses, stayed indoors, and waited.

Every year, the ‘3/3’ or ‘third of the third’ wind would come roaring up the Congo River on cue, batter the village for a day or two, and then disappear.

But things are changing. The 3/3 wind is no longer living up to its name. It’s becoming unpredictable. This year, it came in February and blew ferociously for a week. People weren’t ready; crops and buildings were destroyed, and two children were killed by falling trees.

“When the wind came, it caused panic among the animals because it was an unusually strong wind,” says Lukolela sheep farmer Frederic Nkakeduta.

“Some animals died, and some of our houses and the sheep enclosure were destroyed.”

Lukolela is a small isolated town on the banks of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 540 kilometres from Kinshasa.

Several days by boat from the capital, and with no connecting roads, it feels a long way from international debates about climate change.

Yet while governments dither over what action to take, Lukolela residents are already feeling the effects of a changing climate – and planning ways to reduce its impact on their daily lives.

A quest for solutions

Anne Marie Tiani stands under a frangipani tree, discussing these changes with fishermen, farmers, women’s groups and local administrators. She’s a senior scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and manager of the Climate Change and Forests in the Congo Basin: Synergies between adaptation and mitigation project (COBAM) that is setting up pilot studies in six Congo Basin landscapes, including the area around Lukolela.

“For the past 10 days, we have been listening to the people,” she says.

“Firstly, to understand how they cope with climate change; how it impacts their activities, health, as well as their lives.  Then to work out some possible solutions to these problems and how, together as a community, they could implement them.”

“We are here to accompany them in the quest for solutions.”


Over the past ten years, Lukolela residents told the CIFOR team, the area has experienced a series of climatic changes that are making life harder. In addition to the unreliable wind, the dry season has been getting longer, affecting agriculture and causing health problems due to reduced access to clean water.

In recent years, they have also noticed a mini dry season inside the wet season, which has been disastrous for the maize and cassava crops so many rely on for income.

The drier climate means average river levels are lower, too, and the fishermen say this is affecting fish stocks. Some key fish species rely for reproduction on floodwaters reaching wetland breeding habitats – but now, some years, the water doesn’t make it that far.

Whether these changes are local climate variations or part of the broader pattern of human-induced climate change has not been established – however what is clear is that even the slightest changes in the environment dramatically affect the lives of these people.

Mélie Monnerat, DRC coordinator of the African Model Forest Network, is working with CIFOR on the project. Lukolela is part of one of the ‘model forests’ the organisation has set up in the country, which encourage the sustainable management of forest landscapes by local communities.

Monnerat says people living in villages like this one are extremely vulnerable to climate change.

“They observe these changes, and they don’t know what to do about it. They just get poorer and poorer. And because they totally depend on their ecosystems for their livelihoods, at the slightest change, they feel it. It has an immediate impact on their everyday life,” she said.

“Dad comes back and there is no fish on the table tonight.”

Carbon sink – and kitchen cupboard

The second largest tropical forest in the world, the Congo Basin has received global attention for its huge potential to slow the pace of climate change.

It is estimated to store 25 – 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which if released through deforestation or forest degradation would raise global temperatures even higher. In an effort to ensure that that carbon stays locked in the trees and out of the atmosphere, 16 REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) pilot projects are operating the region, forming part of a global scheme that aims to pay developing countries to keep forests standing.

But, says Anne Marie Tiani, CIFOR research has pointed out that the forest is not just a carbon sink providing a global good, it is also a home and a larder for nearly 80 million people, most of whom are very poor, dependent on forest resources to survive, and vulnerable to climate disturbances.

The COBAM project aims to explore whether efforts to decrease carbon emissions can also help those living in the forest to adapt to a changing climate – and vice versa.

“The international community is promoting a synergy between adaptation and mitigation – but this has not yet been tested,” Tiani said.

“So we want to carry out pilot projects like this one to see how the synergy between adaptation and mitigation could work on the ground.”

Lukolela’s Green Belt

In Lukolela, during the community workshops conducted by the COBAM team, villagers decided to reforest the riverbank and plant a ‘green belt’ around their town.

This, says Tiani, in addition to contributing to climate change mitigation through carbon storage, will also have multiple adaptation benefits.

Trees will reduce erosion, and act as a buffer against increased flooding and the violent winds. If certain species are planted, they will supply the village with fruits, edible caterpillars, firewood and charcoal – reducing the need to cut further and further into the forest for these purposes.

“We all know that it’s not enough to just plant trees – if there are no trees around the town, it is because people are cutting them down,” Tiani says.

“So we also discussed with the community how to protect the trees that would be planted.”

Community leaders in Lukolela are getting together to plan ways to reduce the impacts of climate change on the town.  Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

“It’s one of the objectives of the project to raise awareness on the importance of trees, so that when people preserve the forest, they do not think that they are doing for others but firstly for themselves.”

“They are not planting for us. They plant for themselves because they have understood the importance of trees.”

The scientists acknowledge these measures can’t solve all the villagers’ problems – and that the causes of those problems may not be simple. But they say adaptation techniques are still worth sharing.

“Despite the fact that we are not a hundred percent sure that all the issues they have raised are directly linked to climate change, we will still work on adaptation. This is because adaptation is close to development.  We will assist the people in overcoming their difficulties to be able to better manage their environment,” says Tiani.

“The vision that I have is to come back to Lukolela in ten years’ time and see a town all green, a beautiful town. To see that people are proud to have achieved this by themselves, and others will come here to see, and replicate what they have seen here somewhere else.”

“That’s my dream for Lukolela.”

For more stories from the Congo Basin, click here.

Climate Change and Forests in the Congo Basin: Synergies between adaptation and mitigation (COBAM) is implemented by CIFOR under the African Development Bank grant to the Economic Community of Central African States for financing the Congo Basin Ecosystems Conservation Support Program. The project is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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