Africa - Elena Vissa is a recent forestry graduate at the University of Padua in Italy. She conducted field research in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) supported by CIFOR’s FORETS project for her master’s degree.
Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), a prominent researcher on common-pool resources – which include forests – and one of only two women to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that when communities can effectively control natural resources, they will manage them to their benefit and ensure long-term sustainability.
However, she cautioned that the following conditions must be met: knowledge, trust and communication within community members; the existence of institutions; and the absence of an intervention by an external authority.
Inspired by Ostrom’s teachings, last summer I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to witness first-hand the degree to which community managed forests can contribute to sustainable development and reduce rural poverty. With the support of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), I set up base in Yanonge, a small town located 60 kilometers from the city of Kisangani, on the left bank of the Congo river.
Though the project FORETS (Formation, Recherche et Environnement dans la Tshopo) funded by the European Union, CIFOR scientists are helping local communities to set up a community forest. The initiative is led by supported by Jean-Pierre Botomoito, the district manager, supported by the traditional leaders. When I met them, they explained that they are afraid that their forest will be awarded as a concession to a logging company, so they would like to secure and formalize their rights to exploit the forest resources before that happens. The project is therefore guiding the community to fulfill the different criteria and navigate the bureaucracy to obtain a title.
Drowning in paperwork
In 2014, a decree in DRC established the legal concept of “local community forest concession” (LCFC), which gave communities the right to claim up to 50,000 ha of forest land on the basis of their customary rights free of charge, according to the law. Once communities obtain the title of LCFC they should be allowed to exploit the forest for subsistence or commercial uses, following a sustainable management plan to be developed through a participatory approach.
In practice, however, setting up a community forest in DRC is not an easy task. First, communities often have little information on their rights and on the process to request the LCFC – in most cases, people are not even aware of the existence of any kind of forest law. Second, while the request is theoretically free, there are a number of associated costs that are out of reach for most communities. For example, it requires a detailed mapping of the area, which means hiring external experts and renting equipment.
The communities where FORETS is working are very isolated. I conducted my research in five different villages: Romée, Ikongo-Ecole, Utisongo, Biondo, and Bokuma, which together are known as the Yainyongo group. Only the first two can be reached via a bumpy and narrow path accessible by motorbike, the others require a hearty trek through a slippery path in the forest and a few river crossing improvisations. The biggest village has approximately 100 different households, while the smallest has only 20.
Isolation is a major obstacle. These communities have little contact with the outside world and are not aware of their rights over the neighboring forest. Therefore, it is difficult for them to understand the requirements to request a LCFC, even for the district manager. This is why FORETS is accompanying them in the process.
According to CIFOR, the project is committed to ensuring that the community benefits from the existing provisions in the Congolese legal framework, support the implementation of an economic and financial plan, and ensure that community forestry contributes to sustainable development.
The main objective of my research was to conduct a socio-economic study of the selected villages to better understand the feasibility of a community forest, and if such a model could contribute to poverty alleviation and better forest management. My findings show that the villages in Yainyongo meet some favorable conditions that make it likely to succeed, except perhaps for Bokuma.
First, in most of the villages there are structured associations, which reflect the ability of community members to work together. For example, in Utisongo there is a local association that supports households when they lose a family member: they receive coffee, sugar and 1,000 Congolese Francs (less than a dollar) without having to repay. In Biondo, there is an active women’s association, known as Mamans makasi (the strong moms). There is also a development-focused organization called Lutte contre la poverté (fighting against poverty), which has succeeded in implementing a public lighting system.
Second, I did not identify any serious social conflicts during my research. While some people spoke of tensions between villages due to expansion beyond their current limits, it did not seem to be an obstacle for them to manage the forest together. It is important, however, to acknowledge that villages have different habits and forest uses, therefore a successful sustainable management plan will have to include these differences and accommodate their specific needs.
Third, people seem aware of the concept of sustainable management of natural resources. During our focus groups we learnt that non-governmental organizations had previously worked in the most accessible villages (Romée and Ikongo-Ecole), and had organized activities related to sustainable agriculture. But unexpectedly, we found also a genuine interest in some villages that had never been exposed to development projects.
Finally, there are potential economic activities that could help improve local living conditions. Currently, communities’ livelihoods depend on charcoal production and agriculture. There is a growing charcoal market in Kisangani. It is the main source of energy in the area, and while its high consumption could be a driver of forest degradation, there is a lot of potential to develop a more sustainable and profitable industry – for example through biomass plantations.
As for agriculture, villagers work principally in “zamba” — forest land that has already been converted to farmland — but in some cases, primary forest is still exploited. This could be addressed with a proper management plan for a community forest. And most importantly, agriculture needs to become more productive and profitable to improve people’s living conditions and avoid further forest degradation.
Who are the locals?
Despite these favourable conditions, a major constraint remains the distinction between “native” and “immigrant” populations – people whose ancestors inhabited the land, versus families that have arrived in the area in recent decades in search for better opportunities or escaping conflict. Under customary law, “native” people have more rights over natural resources than “non-native” people who must request permission from local people to enter a forest and exploit resources.
Bokuma is a village made up of only immigrant people that came to work a rubber plantation, but the population is now second and even third generation born in the village. However, according to the Congolese Forest Code, only local communities have the right to obtain a concession to create a community forest.
Article 1 of the Forest Code and Article 2 of the decree 14/018 define a local community as “a population traditionally organized on the basis of custom and united by bonds of solidarity in clan or kin, underpinning its internal cohesion. It is further characterized by its attachment to a particular land.”
According to this definition, migrant populations are not entitled to the traditional rights to lands and resources, even though they might have been living in the same village for decades. From this discriminatory rule, conflictual situations may easily arise.
As a young European researcher, conducting fieldwork in DRC for the first time was sometimes confusing, sometimes an eye-opening experience. As a missionary living in Yanonge explained:
“There may be things you do not understand and others you will understand later on, but there are also things that you do not understand and that you will never understand, but you will accept.”
Indeed, acceptance means respecting different behaviors and ways of living. For example, people’s relationship with forests. Surrounded by a less forested environment, I feel that we, Europeans, have lost the capacity to see how much we depend on forests.
But the communities I visited during my field work, like many others, directly rely on forest resources for their livelihoods: forests provide food, energy, medicine, and shelter, and everyone seems to be aware of their primary importance. They just need a little bit of help to manage them sustainably.
Finally, I was told many times: “Do not forget us when you go back home, please keep in mind what you have seen here.”
This is why I am sharing my experiences in DRC and I will dedicate my career to international forestry.
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