Congolese researchers Chadrack Kafuti and Nestor Luambua know what it takes to get into the least-known tropical forest in the world. Inhaling the warm and steamy air, plastic boots enable them to cross streams and fend-off the highly venomous green mamba snake; a wool bonnet prevents swarms of flies from forcing their way into ears, eyes and mouth; and a hard work helmet protects them from tumbling ripe fruits and rotten branches.
And those are only the minor inconveniences. Until recently, scientists studying trees in the Congo Basin had to pack up their wood samples and take them to Europe or further afield for analysis. “Imagine having to take 30 tree trunk slices of 10 kg each all the way from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Belgium,” says Kafuti, a 27-year-old PhD candidate with Ghent University and the Royal Museum for Central Afica (RMCA) in Belgium.
Fortunately for Kafuti and his peers, the Yangambi Research Station in northern DRC has just opened the first wood biology laboratory in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. A state-of-the-art facility that will allow researchers to better understand how trees in the Congo Basin grow and function, and how they have reacted to human impacts and natural disturbances in the past.
“This knowledge is essential to sustainably manage the forests, and to predict their role in mitigating and adapting to climate change,” says Dr. Hans Beeckman, head of the RMCA’s Wood Biology Service and one of the promoters of the laboratory, which is run by the National Institute for Agronomic Studies and Research (INERA).
The Congo Basin, which is the world’s second largest tropical rainforest, is home to some 10,000 plant species, and plays a crucial role in providing livelihoods, storing carbon and regulating the global climate. It is far better preserved than the Amazon and the rainforests in Indonesia, but it is also far less understood.
“Around 60 percent of the forests in the Congo Basin are in the DRC, meaning we urgently need well-trained forestry experts to better understand, protect and manage them,” notes Luambua, a 29-year-old PhD candidate with the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS).
A situation the new facility wants to turn around with the help of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the FORETS project (Formation, Recherche et Environnement dans la Tshopo). This European-Union funded initiative is spearheading efforts to make the Yangambi Research Station a go-to place for research on tropical forests and landscape management. Supporting postgraduate students such as Luambua and Kafuti and improving facilities is part of that drive.