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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.

   Technician Trésor Bolaya Bokutu prepares wood samples. Axel Fassio/CIFOR


The wood biology laboratory will be an open facility. Open to INERA employees, external researchers with a long-term interest in the DRC, and Master and PhD students of the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS). Kisangani, the DRC’s third largest city, is 90 kilometers up the Congo river from the laboratory —right before a 100 km stretch of rapids that cut the navigation along DRC’s main water highway.

For Mélissa Rousseau, the RMCA scientific collaborator in charge of the facility, the laboratory is all about nurturing the talent of local researchers and facilitating the exchange with experts from other African countries and beyond. “The DRC shares similar forests and sustainable management challenges with other countries in the Congo Basin such as Cameroon and Gabon, so their scientists can learn a lot from each other,” she illustrates.

In 2005, there were only six people with postgraduate degrees working as forestry researchers in DRC. CIFOR and UNIKIS have since trained 220 Master and PhD students, a new generation of Congolese forest experts who will now be able to conduct world-class research right next to the rainforest.

“I know many Congolese researchers who wanted to conduct very interesting studies on wood anatomy, but had to give up because there was no suitable equipment in the region,” regrets Kafuti. He believes the new facility, which includes high-end microscopes and tools for radiocarbon dating, will allow African scientists to pursue their studies and guide the sustainable management of forests.

   Mélissa Rousseau trains MSc students Chalay Azenge Bokoy and Muyisa Mbusa Wasukundi. Axel Fassio/CIFOR


Studying wood biology has a number of important, real-life applications, starting with the management of commercially-valuable tree species. “Knowing the age and growth patterns of trees, for example, is vital to determining how much wood we can extract from a forest, and when, without jeopardizing the survival of the species,” explains Beeckman from the RMCA.

Indeed, one of the key challenges for countries in the Congo Basin is developing their own modern silviculture approaches —strategies to manage forests and tree plantations so they can continue responding to the needs of people, biodiversity and the climate for years to come.

Kafuti and Luambua are now conducting some of the first studies globally on how hardwood trees such as Afrormosia (‘Pericopsis elata’) –the second most exported species in the DRC— will react to climate change, and how they can be safeguarded. Their studies will be very much facilitated by the local presence of the wood biology laboratory.

In the future, the facility could also help fight illegal logging through forensic timber identification. That is, by determining the species of harvested trees at the request of local authorities or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

   Yangambi's wood biology laboratory is located next to the tropical rainforest. Axel Fassio/CIFOR


The forests in the Congo basin provide livelihoods and ecosystem services to 60 million people living in and around them, but they are threatened by population growth, slash-and-burn agriculture and fuelwood harvesting.

Deforestation through unsustainable logging, mining and illegal trade of plant and animal species is exacerbated by poor governance and lack of economic opportunities for local communities.

Deep inside the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, PhD candidate Nestor Luambua trudges through one of the largest undisturbed stands of tropical forest on the planet. Having inventoried trees in an area the size of 300 football pitches, he knows every twist and turn and is confident he can pick his way through the wilderness.

Likewise, Luambua and his fellow researchers are convinced it is possible to find a way out of the unsustainable exploitation of central African forests. Research, education and the development of alternative livelihoods all have a role to play.

Rousseau from the RMCA agrees: “The wood biology laboratory is the first brick in the building, but it is piece by piece that even the grandest constructions take shape.”

This research was supported by European Union
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