Agriculture in the Congo River Basin

Sowing the seeds of deforestation

As the human population grows, so does the need to sustain it. In the forests of the Congo River Basin, although agriculture is a primary cause of deforestation, its impact is still localized, affecting a small part of the landscape.1 But commercial and traditional slash-and-burn agriculture are expanding, with worrying prospects.

With more than 90% of households in Central Africa involved in agriculture, and with human population growing at 2% to 3% per year, demand for agricultural land is increasing, as is the scale of forest transformation.2

Human and biodiversity hotspots

Predictably enough, high population density areas such as parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are currently under severe localized pressure from agriculture. The problem is that these areas include high biodiversity ecoregions such as the Atlantic Equatorial Coastal Forests, the Albertine Rift and the Rift Frontier of the eastern DRC.
 / ©: WWF / Martin HARVEY
Virunga National Park Intensive agriculture encroaching on the park boundary. Democratic Republic of Congo
© WWF / Martin HARVEY

Land use practices in Central Africa

In the Congo River Basin, land use approaches depend on climate and vegetation. Forestry and commercial plantation agriculture is mostly carried out in humid zones, where rainfall reaches up to 4,000 mm/year, while livestock rearing (with some subsistence cultivation) is more appropriate to the semi-arid zones, where rainfall averages 500 mm/year.3

Sound basic principles of agriculture

When it is suited to a local context, shifting cultivation (a form of subsistence farming) in itself is not destructive, especially if it is practised on a small scale. From Southeast Asia to Latin America, shifting cultivation has been used for centuries with limited impact on forests.

When problems start appearing

But when demographic pressures, poorly planned infrastructure projects and unfair land-tenure regimes occur, they undermine traditional shifting agricultural systems and threaten natural forests.

Similar problems can appear when migrants or settlers from other regions introduce agricultural practices that are unsuited to local conditions and accelerate environmental degradation.

What are the impacts?

  • Deforestation: When the land fails to yield crops, many farmers relocate to areas that have been opened up by logging or infrastructure development. The result is that the agricultural land keeps gnawing into the forest.
    For example, in the Kivu region of eastern DRC, deteriorating agricultural conditions and a steady stream of refugees from neighbouring Burundi and Rwanda caused people to use a new road through the forest to establish farms in previously inaccessible areas.
  • Bushmeat demand: Commercial hunting in the more accessible areas increases bushmeat-hunting and trade, an important component of the subsistence diet, forcing farmers to move farther into the forest to find an adequate meat supply.
  • Temporary land tenure: Lack of secure land tenure inhibits farmers from making permanent improvements to the land.4

What is WWF doing about this problem?

1 CARPE. 2001. Timber Tsunami: Tracking Logging in the Congo River Basin. Congo River Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #5.
2 CARPE. 2001. Deforestation in Central Africa: Significance and Scale of the Deforestation. Congo River Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #6.
3 UNEP. 2002. AFRICA ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK: Past, present and future perspectives.
4 Biodiversity Support Program. Undated. Central Africa: Climate Change and Sustainable Development. Synopsis.

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