Fieldwork in the forest: deforestation dynamics more complex than they first appear

A PhD student reflects on a month spent investigating artisanal mining in eastern DRC
Seeds of the carapa tree, which is indigenous to the Congo Basin rainforest. Photo: Malte Ladewig/NMBU

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On my computer screen, the black lines spread like veins through the heartland of the Congo Basin rainforest, the biggest carbon sink on the planet – also known as the ‘lungs of Africa’. I’d just begun a PhD at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), in which I hoped to tease out some of the threats to this critical ecosystem, and in doing so feed into the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF)’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+ – the UN-backed scheme to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

A few months into this body of work, I had read my way through the literature on drivers of deforestation and started developing ideas for my first research projects. The black lines on my screen, representing road networks, were part of these projects’ realization: I hoped they would help me analyze the effect of mining-induced road expansion on deforestation dynamics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Just two months later, I stood alongside one of these roads in South Kivu, East DRC. But the line that had been labeled as a national road on my computer map only distantly resembled its Platonic ideal. A canyon, deep enough to make entire cars disappear, cut through the surface where I was expecting asphalt, traffic jams, and the smell of gasoline. Even the motorbikes, a common means of transportation in the country, struggled to drive through the rough terrain. And this was only the dry season – it was hard to imagine how anyone might traverse it when the rains began.

Fieldwork had presented itself as an unexpected and rather spontaneous opportunity when a professor from my university invited me to join her expedition to East DRC. With little preparation time, somewhat rusty French, and a survey in my luggage, I arrived in the buzzing city of Bukavu, South Kivu, where I would be based for the next month with a goal of learning about, and collect data on, mining in the forest landscapes of the region.

I found that in this part of DRC, mining mostly occurs in the shape of informal, artisanal labour. In search of an income, predominantly-young men leave their villages and, with hammers and shovels, extract minerals on a small scale. While some miners migrate and settle near the mines, others use the activity as a seasonal source of income and return home after a few weeks or months. In contrast to what I hypothesized from my desk in Norway, the transport of minerals from mines located deep inside the forest is not facilitated on roads built specifically for the purpose, but rather organized by people carrying backpacks through the thick rainforest on small trails.

Soon after my arrival in Bukavu, we set off for the first of several multiple-day trips to the forests around Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve, with a team that included a guide and a researcher from the University of Bukavu who helped to conduct interviews in the local language. Our shaky and dusty ride ended in a village, from where we continued with a five-hour hike up to the edge of the forest.

From the beginning of our hike, we continuously passed young men balancing huge planks of freshly-cut wood on their heads. We were told that these men earn a daily wage of US$1. The planks are carried to a hut by the closest road, from where they are traded – with an almost non-existent profit margin – to the next town, and then sold for several times the price. The planks kept on passing us as we ascended to the thick line of trees at the horizon demarcating the beginning of the rainforest, until we reached the priest’s house. We would be based there while conducting interviews in the surrounding villages over the following days.

Before leaving Norway, I had been faced with the challenging task of designing the survey questions I would be asking in the villages. I needed these questions to help me to develop a better understanding of how people in South Kivu integrate mining activities into their livelihood strategies, while at the same time investigating their forest impact. I had many concerns in my mind as the interviews came closer. Would we manage to find miners in the village? If so, would they be willing to share their experiences? And would the answers to the questions give us the information we were looking for?

Luckily for us, on the next day of our trip it became clear that a lot of the households in the villages we visited were involved in mining. Many of them willingly shared their stories, and told us about economic hardship, displacement, and the harsh conditions that they encountered when working in the mines.

In the literature, the biggest threat to the Congo Basin rainforest is usually stated as the continuous expansion of smallholder agriculture into the forest. A question of interest for us was therefore the relationship between mining and farming. In the villages we visited, we learned that mining seldom substitutes for agriculture, but rather supplements it in a form of income diversification. Agricultural output is seasonally dependent on rainfall, and in times when the growing conditions are poor, mining presents itself as a temporary income opportunity. This strategy is also adopted when households are exposed to unexpected shocks, such as weather anomalies, crop pests, and even conflict-driven displacement.

In contrast to miners who use the activity as a gap filler, others orientate their livelihoods around it and move after the minerals when new deposits open. As increasing numbers of people come to work at the mines, they often establish small settlements, and deforestation from activities like housing construction and farming adds to the forest footprint of the mining, surpassing the area cleared for extractions by far.

Having returned to Norway, I plan now to analyze these ties and linkages of artisanal mining to the livelihoods of people in South Kivu, using the household survey data we collected. Another chapter of the thesis will more directly investigate the impact that mining leaves on forests and how artisanal mining triggers other drivers of deforestation in the surroundings.

As a PhD scholar, this opportunity to work in the field was an invaluable experience. Beyond the lesson that data is not as unambiguous as I assumed when compiling maps on the computer, hearing the perspectives behind the data from local communities enriched my understanding of the complex local context in South Kivu – and the multifaceted configuration of factors behind the dominant narrative of smallholder-driven deforestation.

 Two articles pertaining to this research are soon to be published. For more information on the topic, please contact Malte Ladewig at


This fieldwork is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+ ( Funding partners for this research comprise the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation; the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety; and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA) with financial support from the CGIAR Fund Donors.

Special thanks go to all survey participants who shared their stories with us, the team of guides and researchers who were essential to the work, and Prof. Aida Cuni Sanchez for all the support before, during and after the fieldwork.

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