Sustainable livelihoods, community empowerment, and forest protection in Maï-Ndombe | WWF
Sustainable livelihoods, community empowerment, and forest protection in Maï-Ndombe

Posted on 27 November 2019

Efforts to ensure sustainable land use with the active contribution and participation of local communities and Indigenous peoples is producing positive results in the Maï-Ndombe province. The project, implemented by WWF, is an encouraging model in empowering communities for successful conservation.
By Dandy Yela Yolemba, WWF-DRC Communications Manager

Pour lire cette histoire en français, cliquez ici.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to one of the largest rainforests in the world. Spanning nearly 166 million hectares, the forest covers almost 70% of the country’s territory and represents 7% of the world’s total tropical forest area.
 
The rate of deforestation in DRC is relatively low compared to forested countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia, but this rate is increasing rapidly and is the highest among the Congo Basin countries. Much of this forest loss and degradation is due to slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging, charcoal production for cooking and energy use, mining and forest fires. DRC is one of the least developed countries in the world, and so economic development remains a top priority. In this context, forest protection and sustainable livelihoods must go hand-in-hand, and it’s one reason why DRC has been engaged in REDD+ for the last decade.
 
As part of that engagement, WWF launched our Norad/NICFI-funded project in Maï-Ndombe province in 2016. The province of Maï-Ndombe is located in the heart of the Congo Basin and spans more than 12 million hectares, most of which are forest. It is part of one of the most important tropical ecosystems left on earth.
 
This September we were joined by colleagues from WWF Forest and Climate and WWF-Colombia in a visit to some of the communities we have partnered with in Maï-Ndombe. While leaving Kinshasa, a sprawling city with a population of over 10 million, for Inongo, capital of the Maï-Ndombe province, from above we could contemplate the dissonant spectacle of landscapes. Kinshasa and its surrounding areas are marked by agriculture and degraded lands while the Maï-Ndombe province areas offer a different and hallucinating spectacle of forests.
 
We passed over scattered patches of green on savannahs before crossing over into Maï-Ndombe with its large areas of forests. These forests are the primary source of food and fuel for the local population and expanding development needs are increasing pressure on forests. Indeed, local communities and Indigenous people all over the country are heavily dependent on forests and the resources they provide for their livelihoods. In some places there are nearly no other alternatives.
 
This project in Maï-Ndombe has started to change that reality. It is designed to support community livelihoods in the context of REDD+, and the primary activities have been tailored to the context of each territory and community that wants to participate. In the territory of Inongo, the main focus has been reforestation, in Kiri, the project is driven by community forestry, and the communities in Kutu focus on savannah protection, especially through improved fire management.
 
In addition to their free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) at each step in the project, there is an additional requirement of participation – that women and Indigenous peoples must be empowered to actively participate and take leadership roles. Indeed, the local development communities (CLDs) that are the implementation body of these activities, must have women holding at least 30% of their leadership positions. In communities that are a mix of Indigenous Pygmy peoples and Bantu peoples, Pygmy peoples must be included as equals in decision making and project implementation.
 
The emphasis on consent, both within the community itself and between the community and WWF, led to one community deciding it wasn’t able to proceed with the program. Despite their desire to participate, they had internal conflicts that needed to be resolved before they could start the process to establish the CLD. This experience reinforced the importance of FPIC at each step of the process, and led WWF staff in the field to reemphasize explaining the overall process with each community.
 
Communities receive a small payment for environmental services (PES) for successful achievements at different phases of implementation and can use the funds as they see fit. To date, they have primarily been used to rebuild schools and clinics, with small amounts given to those who were highly involved in the activities in exchange for their investments of time and energy.
 
We first visited Bobangi area communities in the vicinity of the city of Inongo, which is the capital of the province of Maï-Ndombe as well as the territory of the same name. These communities are primarily Indigenous Pygmy peoples, and their forests are central to their cultural identity as well as their livelihoods. Several community members excitedly reported the return of caterpillars to their reforested areas. These had been an important food source but were assumed to be extinct in the area.
 
After meeting with community members and representatives, we visited the Ikalata agricultural school. Mr. Botikali Ebengo, the Director of the school, remarked that his institution has greatly benefited from the project on behalf of the Bobangi communities.
 
Students, with support from local communities, have reforested 8 hectares of land on the school’s campus, where they planted acacia as well as fruits like avocado, pineapple and safoutier (a tropical fruit tree). The acacia grows quickly and will take the place of natural forests for charcoal production when fully grown, and they plan to generate future revenue from selling the excess fruits from the other trees. They have also started to generate income through the tree nursery they established with training from WWF, where they grow and sell acacia seedlings to restore degraded lands through agroforestry as they have been trained by WWF and partners.
 
Mr. Ebengo added that the project significantly contributed to an increase of almost 200% in the school’s attendance – from 63 to 168 students – amplifying the continuation and dissemination of the knowledge learned through the project.
 
In the second visited site of Semendwa, in the territory of Kutu, the impacts of work with the communities are even more visible. There they have reforested around 20 hectares of lands that include agroforestry activities that mix acacia with fruit trees. Villagers testify that the trees have grown so much in two years that they are now windbreaks that spare their villages from the strong winds that sweep across the savannahs. And there are signs of biodiversity and wildlife return, including antelopes, said Mr. Floribert Mwinda, a tree nursery gardener in Kempimpi village.
 
However, it should be mentioned that the remote context of many of the communities like Semendwa was a challenge to the process from the very beginning. The materials needed to start their nurseries were hard to find or even unavailable in their area, and had to be brought from further afield, increasing the expense and logistical arrangements needed to start implementation.
 
Despite the challenges, these very encouraging results demonstrate how local communities and Indigenous peoples have really owned the process and are strongly motivated to continue this type of project. And while the immediate results of their efforts were definitely satisfying, community members also cited another reason to participate in the project – climate change. Several people said concern about climate change was a motivating factor in their decision to agree to partner with WWF, and they were excited to be able to improve their livelihoods and work against climate change in the same process.
 
Our visits allowed us to see the positive impact of the project, both the reforestation and agroforestry activities as well as the ways that local communities and Indigenous peoples worked together to bring them to life to improve community livelihoods and forest management in these territories of Maï-Ndombe. Thanks to this project, to date 29 CLDs have been established, more than 210,872 hectares of village lands have been mapped with the effective participation of the communities and verification from their neighbors, 100 hectares of land has been reforested, and 1,000 hectares of savannah have been placed under improved protection and management. It is an important first step in making sure that both people and forests can thrive in DRC.
A man walks through a savannah with trees in the distance
Visiting a community reforestation project in Mai-Ndombe, DRC.
© Emelin Gasparrini