Healing the heavily forested landscapes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the aftermath of devastating wars that ended in 2003 has been a slow process, just one of many systemic scars under repair amid ongoing post-conflict skirmishes.
War has contributed to forest loss and damage through unregulated wildlife hunting, livestock grazing, subsistence agricultural activities, fuelwood gathering and massive refugee camps. As an uneasy truce settled on the country, there were only six qualified people with post-graduate degrees to manage the vast forest in the nation of more than 80 million people.
DRC has been subject to decades of extraction activities by miners in pursuit of riches proffered by diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc. Nowadays the country — which is ranked second only to Brazil by tropical forest area — is also a major producer of coltan used in electronic devices.
An increasing number of roads criss-cross the rugged terrain, as demand for natural resources balloons, putting natural ecosystems at risk. The threat to the Cuvette Centrale, the world’s largest undisturbed tract of tropical peatlands through which the mighty Congo River snakes, has sparked fears of a dramatic spike in global warming if its massive store of carbon emissions is released.
Roadways have exacerbated pressures on forests, compounded by the use of swidden techniques — also known as shifting cultivation or, formerly, “slash and burn” — to prepare the land for planting, wood gathering for fuel and charcoal production, and small-scale artisanal and entrepreneurial logging. Population growth and unchecked use of natural resources are adding to the enormous pressure on natural ecosystems.
Constructing a framework
Now scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF), funded by the European Union, are working alongside policymakers in DRC to strengthen the country’s capacity to forge a sustainable framework that will serve as a barricade against ecosystem collapse.
The area of focus is Yangambi in Tshopo province, where five projects are underway to shape the landscape into a science, conservation and development hub where forests contribute to the sustainable well-being of local communities.
It is a dynamic forest landscape of about 800,000 hectares, which includes protected areas, off-reserve forests, logging concessions and arable land plays a key role.
An area designated since 1977 by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO as the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve has served as a tropical forestry and agriculture research hub since the 1930s. It hosts unique biodiversity, including such valuable tree species as the endangered afrormosia (Pericopsis elata), iroko (Milicia excelsa), ilomba (Pycnanthus angolensis) and sapelli (Entandrophragma cylindricum).
Yangambi is home to over 220,000 people that are mostly reliant on the exploitation of forest resources for their livelihoods. Logging, shifting cultivation-dependent agriculture, charcoal production, hunting and fishing fuel the city of Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo province, with a population of 2 million people. Facing limited alternatives, residents are feeling the effects of decades of prevalent unsustainable practices, particularly local wildlife depletion, changes in precipitation patterns and land degradation.
One of the key components of this joint effort has been to develop and train a cadre of forestry experts to fill a post-war gap where only a handful existed.
Since 2007, a project coordinated by CIFOR and the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS) has trained 220 postgraduate students in sustainable forest management techniques. These students have gone on to work in a wide range of sectors, including academia, government and private sector.
CIFOR also supports local entrepreneurs and sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity protection and conservation efforts, research for development, and environmental education.
“Working in close collaboration with local and international partners, we are breaking silos and investing in long-term and structural changes,” said CIFOR senior scientist Paolo Cerutti. “We are moving from research to action by implementing a landscape approach that delivers relevant and actionable solutions at the local level.”
Time for innovative solutions
CIFOR’s sustained presence in Yangambi became a flagship model upon which the concept of “engagement landscapes” was partly formed, becoming a central part of the new joint CIFOR-ICRAF 10-year strategy that will guide research at the centers until 2030.
“Designating landscapes in this way, signals that we are engaging with local stakeholders and working with them and other people to develop solutions that work,” Cerutti said.
The strategy establishing engagement landscapes as geographic locations where CIFOR-ICRAF will concentrate efforts over the long-term to support transformational change and enhance resilience was forged following the CIFOR-ICRAF merger last year.
The approach captures the complexity of landscapes, addresses conflicting land uses and different layers of governance, while working with various stakeholders, farmers and value chain actors.
“We hope that this holistic approach can become a reference on how human and nature-based solutions can support local development and address global challenges,” said Robert Nasi, CIFOR-ICRAF director of science.
“Applied research, local participation, women involvement, capacity development, rural electrification, land restoration made the Yangambi Engagement Landscape a real-life example of long-term transformational investment.”
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