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Nestled within Africa’s biggest rainforest lies what was once the world’s largest tropical agriculture research center.

Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.

It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after DRC gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.

But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here.

   The botanical collection has been carefully documented and preserved. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone. When the Belgian Meise Botanic Garden started working here over ten years ago, they were faced with broken windows, no electricity, outdated equipment and terrible road access.

“When we began our collaboration with the INERA in Yangambi, we were surprised that despite the lack of external assistance and the poor infrastructure, the collection was very well preserved,” explains Francesca Lanata, coordinator of the Meise Botanic Garden’s cooperation program in DRC. “Some of the employees have dedicated their entire lives to protect this knowledge, the least we could do was to commit to sustained support and to improve their working conditions,” she added.

   INERA’s staff have preserved the herbarium’s botanical collection despite difficult conditions. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

First steps saw the installation of solar panels, which brought electricity to the herbarium. Next, computing and scanning equipment enabled staff to digitize the collections, increasing the longevity of specimens and making them available to a world audience for research work.

   Yangambi herbarium in 1959. Marie-Paule Huget/
   The herbarium is located within the Yangambi Biosphere. Michael Techy/CIFOR

It was in 2017 that a ‘game changing’ opportunity arrived. INERA and the Meise Botanic Garden partnered with FORETS, a project coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and financed by the European Union. FORETS aims to transform Yangambi into a sustainable landscape, where forests and research double up to improve the living conditions of local people. This has meant a commitment to invest in the herbarium’s infrastructure, its staff, and facilitate research on the site.

Now, the herbarium has benefitted from a facelift – including a new roof, windows and doors, and a water cistern – soon its staff will be trained in modern preservation techniques and new technologies.

   Herbarium staff receive training in documenting and digitizing the collection. Axel Fassio/CIFOR

“Most importantly it can welcome researchers that want to access this knowledge to further study Central Africa’s forests”, explains Lanata, “these carefully documented samples can help us understand trends on the flora’s distribution in space and over time”.

   In 2018 the herbarium benefitted from a facelift. Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   Digitization of specimens will enable access to researchers around the world. Binjedit Nsoni/CIFOR

In an official ceremony led by Bart Ouvry, Ambassador of the European Union to DRC, the building was inaugurated in November 2018. After cutting the ribbon, Ouvry said, “The renovation of the herbarium’s infrastructure will help INERA take its place once more as the reference for the study of Central Africa”.

“Our work is not only to preserve this botanical treasure, but to bring it closer to the rest of the world”, concluded Lanata.

   The EU Ambassador to the DRC inaugurates the renovated herbarium. Binjedit Nsoni/CIFOR
This research was supported by the European Union
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