Q+A: How an “engagement landscape” in DRC’s Yangambi can make a difference

Scientist Paolo Cerutti on translating research into action
Paolo Cerutti, a CIFOR senior scientist, speaks at a journalists’ workshop in Kisangani, Tshopo province, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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In 2005, there were only six forestry specialists with a postgraduate degree in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Fast-forward to 2020, and the number has increased to over 220 with master’s and doctoral degrees. In addition, there are many more skilled technicians who are highly qualified to sustainably manage the country’s vast tropical forests.

This outcome is the result of hard work and the commitment of students and technicians, funding from the European Union, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), World Agroforestry (ICRAF), the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS), governments and partner organizations.

“When there is a lack of in-country options to improve knowledge and expertise to understand and solve complex problems linked to people and the environment, there is no way actions will be sustainable,” said Paolo Cerutti, a CIFOR senior scientist who has led CIFOR-ICRAF work in DRC since 2017.

By concentrating some significant research efforts in the Yangambi landscape, which is located near the Tshopo provincial capital Kisangani, the recently merged CIFOR-ICRAF aims to transform the way scientific results are translated into development actions with long-term positive impacts.

“Today, many of the Congolese specialists that we have trained are teaching others all over the country, while several are working locally, leading interventions with local entrepreneurs who operate along short value chains with products mostly serving villages and cities in the landscape,” Cerutti said.

“Our goal is to keep increasing local knowledge about value chains and their impacts on the environment, while incubating and accelerating individual and small-scale enterprises. There are many possible models that we are testing, including public-private partnerships, cooperatives, or spin-off institutions potentially run by our graduates. This constitutes a significant part of our work in Yangambi with the ultimate aim of initiatives functioning with a smaller need for public funding and increased private and self-support.

These ideas fit into a new 10-year strategy designed by CIFOR-ICRAF, which aims to build on prior research and capacity training efforts by ratcheting up the traditional approach to landscape development and restoration. New initiatives, now referred to as “engagement landscapes,” are intensified in geographical locations, established as settings for transformative partnership platforms, which aim to take an intensive, systematic approach to collaborative research work over the long term. The concept builds on the CIFOR-ICRAF track record of producing environmental solutions that can be adapted through policies and readily applied by communities.

Cerutti is keenly aware of the benefits and challenges that accompany long-term engagement.

“Engagement is a daily exercise in negotiation,” he said. “You need to sit down with interested parties and get ready to get 80 percent or even less of what you initially wanted, but without this process, the many useful recommendations of traditional research risk remaining untested and hence not really enacting change. To act on them means translating them into the here and now, checking daily that activities are indeed leading to improved local livelihoods and a better environment for most people.”

Cerutti argues that such sustained engagement with local communities and the environment is essential to preserve DRC’s tropical forests — which are second only to Brazil’s in size — and to restore and retain ecosystem health.

The Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, designated a protected area in 1977 by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, is part of the engagement landscape, which also includes a research station specialized in tropical forestry and agriculture since the 1930s. The center is currently managed by INERA (Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research), an important local partner for CIFOR-ICRAF’s work.

The landscape is under pressure from decades of unsustainable practices, leading to local wildlife depletion, changes in precipitation patterns and widespread land degradation.

Cerutti shared some insights with Forests News:

Q: How do you define the engagement landscape model?

A: An engagement landscape employs the standard research model that CIFOR and ICRAF have been undertaking over the years, but with a twist: the researcher (or most likely – as in this case – a whole large team of them) is embedded into the system that s/he is researching in the long-term, working closely with the people and the environment where s/he is based. Engagement is not only about knowing what’s happening and why, it’s also about changing the landscape for the better. Sometimes, people and the environment are at odds with one another and you need to make choices — and again, it’s a negotiation process.

Q: What’s new about this model?

A: For years, literature has shown that we are often failing in our conservation and development objectives because important stakeholders in a landscape are not working together or toward negotiated and agreed objectives. Each institution, group or person have their own objectives, mandate and long-established ways of reaching them. Most of the time, this means working alone, in silos, separated from others. Of course, this sometimes leads to wasting useful resources and capacities that could be put to better use if the objectives were reached in synergy. It can also cause conflicting mandates that can result in even more deleterious environmental and social impacts.

With these engagement landscapes, we are moving from recommendation to implementation. Once you become engaged in one location over the long term, you can begin working on solutions. They still might not work, but you need to try and regularly include feedback on failure in your processes, for better future results.

Q: How has your work been received by the communities in Yangambi?

A: There are plenty of challenges. The landscape where we work spans 800,000 hectares of land. The project area isn’t a homogeneous unit. We work with small groups of people at a time, depending on the issues at stake. Groups need to agree on a problem, come together to look for solutions, and then make a plan for implementation. Encouraging people to negotiate is difficult as there are many potential and long-held reasons that could lead to conflict instead of agreed solutions. But if we allow those reasons to remain under the surface, undiscussed, unchallenged, and ultimately unsolved, they can explode in the open (even violently), hampering progress.

Q: Do you have an example of a land-use conflict and negotiation process?

A: On a swath of land of about 25,000 hectares, we are establishing plantations with Indigenous and fast-growing species. Technically, much of the land has been owned by INERA since independence, and previously by its colonial predecessor. But in practice, they have not put the land to use for many years as they lack support from the central government, thus locals have been tacitly allowed to cultivate it.

These issues came to the surface when in collaboration with INERA we launched a tree-planting initiative in 2018, as farmers were claiming the land. In response, we established a permanent team that deals with recurrent conflicts and proactively prevent potential conflicts. We mediated an agreement between INERA and the farmers that allows the latter to continue using the land and farm in agroforestry systems established within the planted areas, and in return they commit to take care of the trees, as the area is very prone to fires.

This solution is working relatively well as there seems to be a strong local ownership and farmers feel they are part of the project’s objectives, but again, almost daily negotiations are needed when small or big recriminations pop up from one or another farmer. And every planting season we need to start the process all over again as we plant in various areas, which vary each season, and with different people involved.

Q: How does local entrepreneurship fit into your work?

A: Encouraging local entrepreneurship is fundamental to our vision for Yangambi. It’s the only way for the project to sustain itself in the future. People need attractive alternatives to unchecked natural resource exploitation, which is the outcome when landscapes are not sustainably managed. Entrepreneurship gives people practical ways to improve their livelihoods.

CIFOR-ICRAF is launching a local business incubator/accelerator that will help local cooperatives and entrepreneurs develop their ideas and improve product quality. For example, associations of women with business acumen often face several roadblocks that prevent their ideas from developing. They need legal counseling, a support network and seed capital. That’s where our incubator/accelerator comes in. We accompany and support people to turn their ideas into reality.

At this early stage, we’re working with value chains that are already established: fisheries, timber, charcoal, products such as rice or bananas, etc. We bring in expertise on the financial as well as technical sides, follow and work with selected people for a few months, support with seed capital and legal counseling when needed, and check how it all goes and improve it if needed. On the longer-term, however, the focus will be on the “green entrepreneur” and not necessarily on one specific value chain: if she/he has a good idea and the conditions to develop it will decrease environmental degradation, the incubator/accelerator will support it. Also on the longer-term, we believe it’s possible to get both national and international investors interested in the model, and we have already started talking to investors keen to get involved in green, for-profit opportunities.

Nearby Kisangani has a huge demand for these products, so far largely unmet by local production, so our focus will remain for the foreseeable future on short and local value chains operated by small and medium enterprises.

Q: What is the role of the government in this model?

A: Working alongside various government levels and institutions is one of the model’s key elements. When we talk about “engagement,” we’re not only talking about the people living in Yangambi. Engagement includes the institutions that are part of the landscape. We work with provincial policymakers to jointly determine activities to emphasize in testing and selecting locations. We also support bottom-up initiatives that come from the village-level authorities, notably on land-use models such as community forestry.

Q: How do you measure the impact of engagement landscapes?

A: There is no fixed answer to that question. We have an entire team that monitors and evaluates what we’re doing, and we have a complex model with many variables and indicators. Some of them are easier to measure, for example our impact on forest cover or direct job creation. But it’s more difficult to know if our work improving livelihoods will ultimately result in an increase of environmental degradation, and if the alternatives we are giving to people won’t lead to a greater exploitation of natural resources. These are complex questions, and I don’t have an answer except that we should keep monitoring. If damage is being done, we want a red alert to come up as soon as possible.

Q: What are you most excited about the model and why?

A: I see plenty streams of research and theoretical frameworks coming to life and mixing with local conditions and people’s hopes for the future; we deal daily with the signs of a long local history made of neglect for State institutions and the resulting complex governance; we experience setbacks where we thought we got it right, but also beautiful success stories where they were not expected; and ultimately, because of the long experience that CIFOR-ICRAF has on bringing global research solutions to local adapted contexts, we know that we have to keep going with all this in the mix, for what ultimately can only be a landscape-level solution. This is of course very challenging, but also very, very exciting.

This research was supported by the European Union.
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Topic(s) :   Landscapes Rights