Conservation news

In a first, DRC communities gain legal rights to forests

  • Provincial authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have approved forest concessions for five communities.
  • Following the implementation of a new community forest strategy in June, this is the first time the government has given communities control of forests.
  • Sustainable use of the forest is seen by conservation and development organizations as a way to both combat rural poverty and fight deforestation.

Five communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the more than 10,000 residents who call them home, now have legal control of the forests on which they depend.

This month, government officials in DRC’s Equateur province signed off on applications by communities to manage sections of the country’s forests, covering about 300 square kilometers (116 square miles).

A forest official from Equateur province presents community forest documents to the residents of the village of Bosende, DRC. Image courtesy of RFUK.

“If community forestry in DRC is to succeed, it must be done by and for communities themselves,” Julien Mathe, director of the NGO Group d’Action pour Sauver l’Homme et son Environnement (GASHE), said in a statement. “We hope that the communities we’ve supported will serve as a model for others throughout the country.”

The concessions are the first to be granted to communities that are part of a pilot project by GASHE and the London-based Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), supported with funding from the U.K. Department for International Development. The aim is to leverage community forestry programs to both tackle poverty and safeguard the DRC’s rainforests. Around half of the DRC’s 81 million people rely on the country’s extensive forests totaling about 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles).

Women in Equateur gather resources from the forest. Image courtesy of RFUK.

Though the DRC’s deforestation rates aren’t at the levels measured in Southeast Asia or the Amazon, recent research has shown that the need for more agricultural land to feed a growing population is a primary cause of forest clearing. And recent timber licenses issued by the national government have raised concerns among conservation groups that the country’s leaders might soon end the DRC’s moratorium on logging, which has been in place since 2002.

But in May 2018, the government accepted a plan to give control over stretches of forests to local communities in the DRC. Outside of designated protected areas and logging concessions, 750,000 square kilometers (290,000 square miles) could be available for community forests — an area larger than the U.S. state of Texas, or about the size of the DRC’s neighbor to the southeast, Zambia.

Fishing in Equateur province. Image courtesy of RFUK.

The official recognition of the community’s role clarifies the status of the forest, said Kiri Asubwa, who lives in the village of Mibenga.

“Some thought our forests had been sold off, but today we have this title that secures our land,” Asubwa said in the statement. “We now have our community forest.”

Research has shown that carbon stocks are steady or even rise when local and indigenous communities have legal rights to forests, and these concessions typically have less deforestation than areas where no such rights exist. RFUK and GASHE are hopeful that helping more communities acquire legal control will help protect the country’s forests.

The residents of Ilinga celebrate their new community forest. Image courtesy of RFUK.

“For decades, forest communities in the Congo Basin have had little to no rights over their forest lands,” Simon Counsell, executive director of RFUK, said in the statement. “In order to reduce poverty and prevent rampant deforestation, it is vital that the Congolese government give its full support to community forestry, which can bring lasting benefits to local people.”

Banner image of a celebration in the village of Ilinga courtesy of RFUK. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated Equateur’s experience in granting concessions. The five mentioned in this article were the first that were part of the pilot project, but authorities in the province have previously awarded concessions to other communities that were not part of the project.

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