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When taking meat off the menu is not an option: Fighting malnutrition in Congo Basin forests

How to improve access to sustainable diets for rural communities

A woman cooks fresh fish in the village of Lieki, DRC. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Adisi Eboma has been a hunter for over a decade, but in recent years this pursuit has become more complex as prey animals move deeper into the forest. To combat this challenge, Eboma recently launched a pig breeding micro-enterprise that he hopes will allow him to be less reliant on hunting.

Eboma lives in the lush forested landscape of Yangambi, which spans about 8,000 sq km in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), extending over the UNESCO-designated Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, off-reserve forests, logging concessions and farmland. Many towns and villages are scattered throughout the area, which is served by the majestic Congo River and many small tributaries, which are vital arteries for regional communication and trade.

Location of the Yangambi landscape. Credit: CIFOR

Hunters near the Ngazi Forest Reserve. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Hunters near the Ngazi Forest Reserve. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

It is also home to more than 200,000 people living in rural communities whose livelihoods depend on the exploitation of natural resources, including fishing and hunting of wild meat – both vital part of diets in the area. However, due to prolonged conflict, population growth and the heavy reliance on such resources for subsistence, some of them have become scarce, putting an extra strain on already fragile living conditions.

study conducted by CIFOR-ICRAF in 2018, for example, found a pronounced depletion of certain animal species such as the olive baboon (Orycteropus afer), western red colobus (Piliocolobus badius), chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and African forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus). While the causes of local defaunation are diverse, one of the most significant is the wild meat trade. A baseline survey conducted in 2017 showed that over the past 20 years the number of hunters in the area has significantly grown. Moreover, innovations such as the local manufacturing of fire arms and the use of head lamps have increased the amount of game that each person can hunt.

“People are hunting mostly to supply the demand from neighboring towns and cities, leaving very little to feed their families,” said Nathalie Van Vliet, an associate researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). Her research reveals that hunters in the Yangambi landscape sell up to 80 percent of their game.

While the fishing sector in Yangambi has not been studied to the same degree, researchers have observed a similar trend. Initial assessments show a gradual increase in the number of fishers and a decrease of fish stocks. Ongoing research in the village of Lileko also suggests that fishers sell the largest fish instead of consuming them locally.







Conflict as a cause of defaunation

Research by CIFOR-ICRAF shows that local extinctions or sharp declines in mammal populations in the Yangambi landscape are either the direct consequence of conflict or the result of cascading effects that have their origins in the conflicts between 1996 and 2002. At that time, armed groups passed through the forest, hunting for food and to traffic skins and meat.

Once the area stabilized, the degradation of the local economy and closure of factories and other sources of employment left many families without regular incomes. This meant the population continued to depend on forest resources for food security and livelihoods.

Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Fishing in the Congo River. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Fishing in the Congo River. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Impacts on diets

The decrease in populations of wild animals and fish has negative consequences for the human diet. In a nutrition survey of women conducted in the village of Lileko, for example, researchers found that only 3 percent of women were eating foods diverse enough to meet their nutritional needs.

Consumption of animal source foods such as meat, fish, poultry and eggs, was found to be particularly low as women in the village eat only about 20 grams of these foods each day, while the EAT Lancet commissionrecommends 84 grams a day for a healthy diet.

“Animal foods are rich sources of bioavailable minerals and vitamins,” said Amy Ickowitz, a senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF where she leads the Sustainable Landscapes and Livelihoods team. “However, our research has found that women and children in Lileko do not eat much animal food so the little that they do eat is critically important.  More than half of the meat eaten is wild meat from the forest and almost all of the fish is locally caught.”

Malnutrition and food insecurity, a country-wide problem

During the second half of 2020, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had the world’s worst food crisis, according to the World Food Programme’s Global Report on Food Crises 2021. About 21.9 million people were reported to be confronting a food emergency or crisis, while 29 million more could only afford a minimally adequate diet if they cut essential non-food expenses. 

This critical situation has direct consequences for the health and nutrition of Congolese people. The report shows that over 3.4 million children under age 5 are experiencing wasting, which means they are too thin for their height, and almost 5.7 million are stunted, which means they are below the average height for their age, while 41 percent of women of reproductive age and 63.2 percent of children under five are anemic. Anemia, which in many cases is caused by deficiency of iron found in meat, poultry and fish, is strongly linked to an increased risk of maternal and child mortality. It also affects cognitive and physical development in children and reduces productivity in adults.

Nutrition survey near Kisangani, DRC. Photo: Axel Fassio

Towards sustainable production

To address these issues, local experts at CIFOR-ICRAF have been working since 2017 to increase the availability of sustainably produced animal foods. With the financial backing of the European Union, they support local entrepreneurs to create or scale-up businesses that can supply alternative sources of protein to enrich local diets, while avoiding overexploitation of wildlife and fish.

Like Eboma, Helene Yenga has also started a pig breeding business. Formerly a bush meat seller in the weekly market of the town of Yangambi, she hopes to sell the meat of the animals she is raising and consequently reduce the wild meat trade.  

On the other side of the Congo river, in the village of Yanonge, Helena Fatouma is the president of Akili Mali, a women’s cooperative that has been practicing fish farming for almost a decade. With the financial and capacity building support of CIFOR-ICRAF, they recently expanded their business and now have the capacity to produce 6 tons of fish per year.

“It was very difficult to find fresh fish in Yanonge,” said Fatouma. “Thus, we came together to start our ponds and produce fish. We have now received training on how to sell it and how to find clients.”

In total, about 200 people are receiving support to produce sustainable meat and fish, and the goal is to reach 250 people by the end of 2022, according to Paolo Cerutti, the scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF who coordinates the project.

“Our approach combines ad-hoc training, support for associations, incubation and acceleration of ventures, and the improvement of the general business climate,” said Cerutti. “This ‘recipe’ that we are testing in the Yangambi landscape could have a potential broader implementation in DRC and beyond. Of course, we must adapt to each context, but the focus on fostering local enterprises, more sustainable forms of production, and better governance frameworks to support SMEs (small and medium enterprises) should remain at the center of the landscape approach.”

Household consumption first

Near the Yangambi landscape is the city of Kisangani, a major urban area with over 2 million inhabitants. Kisangani is an important consumption center that purchases many resources from neighboring forests, including wild meat and fish.

As a result, CIFOR-ICRAF is working in Kisangani to promote consumption of alternatives, such as locally produced poultry and pigs. It is also working in hunting communities to create awareness of the importance of consuming their game within their households instead of selling it to improve nutritional outcomes. 

Local fish. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Our approach combines ad-hoc training, support for associations, incubation and acceleration of ventures, and the improvement of the general business climate – Paolo Cerutti, Senior Scientist, CIFOR-ICRAF

Texts and project coordination: Ahtziri Gonzalez | Editing: Julie Mollins | Photography: Axel Fassio |
 Graphic design: Aurore de Boncourt | Web design: Gusdiyanto


This work is financed by the European Union though the projects Nouveaux Paysages du Congo (NPC) and Governing multifunctional landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa (GML), and by the U.S. Agency for International Cooperation (USAID).


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