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Deep in the world’s second largest tropical forest sits a maze of buildings that were once home to a premier, colonial-era site for biodiversity research. Though many have continued efforts there, some former labs and research areas are quiet, and aged books sit serenely on library shelves.

Political instability and conflict over the years have made natural resource management and sustainable development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) difficult to implement, yet with notable progress since 2001’s sectoral reforms.

Enveloping the former research station in Yangambi, the forest is facing increasing pressure from surrounding communities because of the support it provides, through the land used for shifting cultivation to the forest products available for trade.

A new endeavor there is addressing that vital dual role of the forest as a creator of livelihoods and nurturer of biodiversity, which in this case includes a staggering 32,000 tree species.

   Old books remain for consultation at the library at the National Institute of Studies and Research in Agronomy (INERA) headquarters in Yangambi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Axel Fassio/CIFOR. Axel Fassion/CIFOR
   An abandoned home stands on the grounds of the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Axel Fassio/CIFOR. Axel Fassio/CIFOR


Fashioning unique linkages between the local communities farming and gathering forest products in and alongside the reserve, scientists with expertise in land management and up-and-coming researchers at the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS), are part of a project to build on the knowledge and proficiencies of these diverse groups to cultivate skills that benefit people and forests.

“Making connections between existing institutions such as the National Institute of Studies and Research in Agronomy , the DRC’s Institute of Agronomy, young scientists from all over the country trained at UNIKIS and the people who live in Yangambi, we are supporting sustainable development and biodiversity management , all the while assessing and proposing solutions to the trade-offs that such connections create,” said Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Senior Scientist Paolo Cerutti, who is leading these efforts.

   People cultivate saplings at a tree nursery in Yangambi in April 2017. The products of this work will be planted throughout the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve to serve as windbreaks and as a source of wood for local residents. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Scientists are looking at what is growing in the forest and the different ways the land is being used, with the aim to support people to most effectively manage the rich resources at their disposal. At one nursery in Yangambi, saplings are developing under the watchful eye of specialists and university researchers, to be planted throughout the reserve and to be used as windbreaks and firewood.

This work generating empirical evidence, training and forward-thinking are part and parcel of this ambitious effort born out of a series of projects implemented by CIFOR and its partners over more than a decade in the eastern part of the country.


At the launch of the Training, Research, and Environment in the Tshopo (Province) project, known by its French acronym FORETS, CIFOR’s Deputy Director General Robert Nasi said, “The DRC plays a crucial and indispensable role in in the Congo Basin, both in terms of forest cover, population and in climate change-related issues.”

The work in Yangambi will help communities reduce deforestation and forest degradation, key factors in global climate change, and also assist to protect and manage the vast wealth of trees, thereby increasing carbon storage capacity.

   This tree is being cut for charcoal in Yangambi. Charcoal is a source of income for locals, but production is labor intensive and profits are low. Axel Fassio/CIFOR Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   Basai Bobe, 44, works at his charcoal production oven in Yangambi in May 2017. In order to produce high quality charcoal, the wood must be hard, and it requires two weeks to gather and cut the wood, which is placed in the oven for 10 days. Axel Fassio/CIFOR Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   A man transports charcoal to a market in Yangambi in May 2017. One sack of charcoal is sold for approximately USD 4 at the local market and USD 11 in Kisangani. Axel Fassio/CIFOR. Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   Charcoal is produced from trees in Yangambi to be sold for a small profit at the local market. Transport costs remain high and profits are low. Axel Fassio/CIFOR. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

“As often is the case, an unclear situation regarding land rights, a sense of past claims that remain unfulfilled, the need to feed thousands of families and the fact that the reserve does not yet have clear limits materialized on the ground are intermingling.

“There are calls for action tackling each problem in its own right, and this work also recognizes that this is a complex environment where synergies among interventions will be fundamental,” Cerutti said.


The 250,000-hectare site in Yangambi is termed a Biosphere Reserve, set up and managed according to UNESCO guidelines, and established for research, conservation and educational activities. But because of high poverty in the area and the push to gather products for income, there is a need for locally driven sustainable management and development solutions.

Residents cultivate cassava, maize, rice and groundnuts and produce oil from palms. But productivity, diversification and valorization of agriculture, livestock and fisheries in the area has been severely limited due to a multitude of factors. FORETS project scientists and development partners are assessing these elements and looking into how best to support development in the area.

   Women carry cassava they cultivate in the Yangambi forest in May 2017. Local residents cultivate a variety of foods from maize to groundnuts, and collect a variety of forest products. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

“From initial discussions with local partners and Yangambi residents, there are suggestions to develop baseline situations as to the availability of wood from abandoned plantations that could be used sustainably to support energy needs. Also to address are the bottlenecks in existing value chains such as agricultural produce, woodfuel, timber and non-timber forest products and to look to the potential of new opportunities provided by the law, such as the implementation of community forests,” said Cerutti.

The approach is a holistic one, recognizing that this complex landscape consisting of conservation forest, arable land, research station and subsistence farmers requires solutions that strike the right balance.

Which means making the connections between farmers and local researchers to benefit both, bonding the studies to emerge from Yangambi and larger conservation concerns, and bringing experience and empirical data to global eyes.

   Dudu Lokangia, 41, prepares a trap in the forest in Yangambi. The main animals hunted are warthogs, monkeys and Gambia rats, with hunters setting around 20 traps in the morning and going back to check after 2 or 3 days. Axel Fassio/CIFOR. Axel Fassio
For more information on this topic, please contact Paolo Cerutti at
This research was supported by the European Union.
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Topic(s) :   Climate change Food security Rights