In 2021, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lost almost 500,000 hectares of old-growth forest – mostly due to small-scale farming and local energy needs. The country holds the lion’s share of the Congo Basin rainforest – the world’s second-largest – and has a large, fast-growing population, much of which relies on that forest for their livelihoods and survival.
In that context, the messages of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2022 “State of the World’s Forests” (SOFO) report, on the urgent need to develop pathways for recognizing the value of standing trees and forests – and unlocking that for local populations – are particularly critical.
Since 2007, researchers at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Center (CIFOR-ICRAF) have collaborated with partners in government, academia, communities and the private sector to build capacity in DRC’s forestry sector, inform national forest policies, and improve livelihoods for vulnerable households through agroforestry and support for the development of sustainable value chains.
We spoke to senior scientist Paolo Cerutti, who heads the CIFOR-ICRAF DRC office, to find out more about his perspective on SOFO 2022, and key issues for the Congo Basin in the lead-up to the COP27 climate summit in Egypt later this year.
Q: Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted upon deforestation patterns in the Congo Basin?
A: In the DRC context, the vast majority of deforestation comes from swidden agriculture, and that didn’t change with the pandemic. People still needed to eat, and continued their expansion into the forests to do their fields. We noted a certain contraction of most value chains at the peak of the lockdown, with production areas getting closer to consumption ones and buyers preferring to buy from closer family members than the standard traders, but that did not last long. Charcoal and agricultural products continued to be in high demand, and once the stricter pandemic response was released, the usual slash-and-burn trend resumed.
Q: How might economic and environmental recovery be simultaneously supported in the Congo Basin context?
A: That’s a million-dollar question. It’s always a question of trade-offs and difficult choices are to be made at each turn. In general, although much more research adapted to the specific local conditions is needed, it’s not the technical solutions that are missing; it’s the set of activities and incentives that will improve people’s livelihoods while showing them the usefulness of maintaining the forest. The problem for countries like the DRC – with some extremely fragile rural communities in terms of availability of food, quality of nutrition, and lack of alternatives – is getting at least some economic and financial incentives to trickle down to the communities, so that they can focus more on activities with added value, while reducing the environmental impact that they are having.
Of course, value-addition brings in a whole set of questions which should be answered upfront, largely outside the classic “environmental” or “forest” sectors. How do people get access to credit or seed-capital to be able to innovate and add value to their standard (agricultural) products? How can they intensify agriculture and agroforestry, or indeed plant useful trees, so they can remain on the same piece of land for a longer period of time, when they do not own that land? It is clear that you can’t restrict the discussion to forest and agriculture, you need to go to the deeper problems, such as tenure and governance: who owns the land?
Why innovate, add value, and possibly get more revenues only for the latter to be systematically captured along the trading routes by anyone with any real or self-appointed power or authority? These are some of the questions in need of urgent answers, otherwise people will continue to prefer to burn primary or secondary forest – and then move on and do another cycle of agriculture for self-consumption and a small amount of commerce, depleting the soil as they do so – and move again with no real solution in sight.
Q: What opportunities exist for addressing these issues, and scaling up restoration and protection?
A: Well, on the positive side, I think that forests are at the top of the policy agenda today – much more than they were five or 10 years ago. We’ve seen it in Glasgow (at the COP26 climate summit). I’ve never experienced this level of intensity of discussion about these topics – especially with the president and ministers taking personal engagements, looking for alternative solutions, and trying to follow them up on the ground.
More practically, it’s not only about the discussions and pledges and presentations at international events, but also about the pieces of legislation that have been passed recently. For example, just to mention a topic which has the potential to span through the forest, agriculture, tenure, and governance sectors among others, DRC’s Forest Code and its recent implementing decrees are boosting the deployment of community forests. This is a big step forward, because it gives back ownership (in perpetuity) to local communities, and it tackles issues of land tenure just as much as what you can do on, and earn from that land.
It’s a move in the right direction, in terms of giving people the responsibility as well as the capacity to profit from their forest. Of course, how that is done is the interesting question, and it goes back to the issue of the right set of incentives and disincentives and government support. It also takes years, because communities have to develop management plans and so on. But I do think there will be no sustainable solution to the current trends in deforestation and forest degradation without legal frameworks that grant people more power and responsibilities to forest management.
For our daily activities on the ground, an additional very important point is that these issues are also trickling down to the discussions at the provincial and local level – it’s not something that is perceived to be just for people in the capital city anymore, and that’s important. Lots of local leaders know about the issues, and the will to fight deforestation has definitely increased, if not yet the means. We’re not hearing what we used to hear 10 or 15 years ago: the idea that “this is other people’s problem; we have plenty of forest; it’s a problem for Europe, not us.” That has already changed, the feeling that we are in this together, and it’s a positive thing.
Q: In the lead-up to COP-27, are there any specific changes you would like to see in terms of Congo Basin governance?
A: The Congo Basin spans across several countries and each one of them will be responsible for specific in-country changes. In general, however, I think that we all have to work to abandon, as much as possible, the “silo-ed” approach that governing bodies keep taking, with forests here, agriculture there, mining there, and tenure elsewhere. These silos do not exist at the local level where we work, because they all largely end up on the same piece of land, which at CIFOR-ICRAF we prefer to call a “landscape.”
Of course, you can still have a logging concession, a protected area, agricultural fields, and so on, all within the same landscape. But they must be seen and managed as interconnected pieces, in order for the local communities to be able to profit as much as possible from them. That is something that’s easier said than done, because that’s how countries work, with ministries and so on. But – especially in countries like DRC where mining is very important, and where agriculture is literally burning the forest – these are very important issues, and their solutions won’t be confined to the ministries mandated to manage them.
And this applies even more at the local level. Something that needs to happen more and more – otherwise we’re not solving the problem – is that the ministries, the local authorities, and the different agencies focusing on the various value chains with direct impacts on deforestation (e.g. agriculture, mining, energy, forestry), need to come together to talk about the causes of deforestation, and try to change the way forests are used and managed. If that does not happen, people might dream up a lovely, easy solution for green community development within the Ministry of Environment or the Ministry of Forests – but in the end, if there’s for example oil underground, a mining permit might well be given out on that same piece of land.
This kind of discussion needs to happen sooner rather than later, because there are plenty of licenses (mining, agribusiness, carbon, logging) already being given out at the central and provincial levels – even inside some of the oldest protected areas. It’s simply a good exercise in land-use planning that needs to happen, backed by transparency and solid information about what has already been granted or what is in the process of being granted. Otherwise, local communities stand no chance to be able to manage “their” land.
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