- Kinandu village residents in southern Democratic Republic of Congo are taking part in a reforestation initiative in the miombo woodlands while land grabs are simultaneously on the rise.
- The fear of losing the land on which they were born and raised, coupled with an awareness of the environmental degradation they took part of, is inspiring residents to own forest concessions and restore the land.
- However, restoration largely depends on whether residents and stakeholders will change the way they produce essential goods, such as maize and charcoal.
- The government should continue to support the project after it ends in July 2022, says Jonathan Ilunga, professor of the University of Lubumbashi’s faculty of agronomy and deputy director of the Open Forests Urban Observatory.
KINANDU, Democratic Republic of the Congo – A small group of residents from Kinandu village, 19 kilometers (11 miles) west of Lubumbashi, head into the miombo wooded savanna, decimated by the nearby city’s growing annual demand for charcoal. The path they take leads into a clearing surrounded by a small circle of trees, evidence of a receding forest landscape. The trees wait their turn to be destroyed and burned for agricultural use. At the foot of these trees, weeds are taking over the community’s budding nursery.
The group’s special guest, Moïse Kiwele, member of the NGO, Action for the Protection of Nature and Indigenous Peoples of Katanga (APRONAPAKAT), is here to deliver his training session for the Miombo Project. For residents, this couldn’t come at a better time. Weeds are taking over the nursery and everyone immediately starts weeding out the seedlings.
“This land needs a lot of water,” says Marie Kayakez, secretary of the Kinandu local community forestry concession, as she pulls weeds. She is one of the Kinandu residents who comes to water the plants regularly.
The area only recently got a sprout of regular rainfall around mid-December 2021. During the long dry period preceding it, from April to May, there were several bush fires. These pose a serious threat to the newly planted trees in the reforestation project.
In June 2021, one farmer’s cassava plantation (Manihot esculenta) was ravaged by a bush fire. The worst aspect for residents is that they can’t rely on firefighters. The fire service is standing on its last legs in Lubumbashi, due to under-equipment.
Reforestation as a tool against land grabs
For the last ten years, forest cover has been receding around the city of Lubumbashi. The region is undergoing continuous deforestation due to the twin threats of demand for fuelwood, and an increasingly mechanized slash-and-burn agriculture. Both demands have been rapidly expanding since 2006, after the copper and cobalt mining boom attracted many Congolese and foreign nationals and led to a demographic boom.
Demographic growth puts pressure on the forests, amplified by an electricity access rate of less than 10%. At the same time, the increased population creates a strong demand for agricultural land, or in other words, a race for the land. For climatologist, Jean-Pierre Djibu, who has studied the miombo woodlands, there are no words to describe the situation other than land grabbing.
“People from Lubumbashi arrive with official documents to claim a piece of land. The people who live here, we’re always left with nothing,” Marie Kayakez tells Mongabay.
Resolving disputes can take a long time. Forced to relocate without compensation, they ended up squatting on the land of their ancestors, next to the copper and cobalt quarries.
Kayakez’s colleague, Rose Yumba, explains that her village decided to take part in the reforestation project to protect itself from losses.
“There is not enough land anymore. We are surprised to see people taking large concessions while the local people in the village get nothing,” she explains. “We decided to get involved [in the project] after learning about what happened to the nearby Kikonke village when they lost their land.”
The Miombo Project, named after a common tree species (genus Brachystegia) in the woodland of southeastern DRC, has been in its experimental phase for more than 5 years.
In 2021, 20 localities obtained documents signed by the provincial governor vouching for their property ownership. Except in cases of “extreme necessity”, in accordance with Congolese land law, they will no longer be able to lose a portion of it to third parties.
The Miombo Project stems from a larger one, that of community forestry. Beginning as the Congolese government’s initiative, and implemented by the FAO and local organizations, the idea behind the project is to guide farmers in the protection and sustainable use of forests and its resources.
Farmers learn forest regeneration techniques, planting native species and useful exotic species to enrich the forest. These species are sorted according to their importance: medicinal plants, climbing plants and timber such as miombo and mukula or redwood (Guibourtia coleosperma), which was in high demand between 2013 and 2018 in Haut-Katanga.
“Here in the village, all our resources come from the forests: we pick mushrooms, wild fruits, and hunt game,” explains the village chief Lumbwe Kyabula Jean. “We sell these to pay for our children’s education and other small activities. This is what pushed us to mobilize and ask the government for our own concession to avoid these [land] problems again.”
For entire villages, this loss of land faced farmers with a devastating reality: being born on the land is no longer enough. They need to have inalienable rights granted to them by a third party and certified by the Land Registry, comments chief Lumbwe Kyabula.
A second job
Although the fear of being evicted from their land is mobilizing farmers to turn to community forestry, challenges still remain in this new model being carried out around Lubumbashi.
Farmers are aware that many of them will not live to see the revived forest that they helped degrade, and that they are now called upon to restore. It can take more than 20 years for the young plants in the nurseries to become viable trees. To some farmers, the slow-paced project can quickly become boring and seem unproductive.
Farmers also take care of their community forests as a second job, not as a something that they can expect immediate benefits from. They must continue to cultivate their own fields and take care of other demands in their lives at the same time. This double responsibility poses a risk to monitoring the project.
Alternatives are also needed to replace income lost by the reduction of charcoal and fuelwood production, which are easier ways for farmers to make money than agriculture. Without serious alternatives, reversing the current trend of deforestation could be complicated.
For Jean-Pierre Djibu, community forests cannot be the only solution to halt forest degradation and land grabbing.
“There have to be other solutions,” he insists. “We must also use local know-how. The farmers already know their land: we have to use this knowledge.”
However, he points out that the traditional knowledge of people living close to the land has weakened in the DRC. The Congolese land law (the Bakajika law, named after the original legislator) claims soils and subsoils as exclusive properties of the Congolese State.
“We expropriate residents of the land. But now, we give them concessions to make it easier for them to operate,” explains Jean-Pierre Djibu.
The trap is that the land titles the villages acquire do not always guarantee anything either, as the state can decide to expropriate them again if it discovers exploitable mineral wealth.
For Jonathan Ilunga Muledi, professor of the University of Lubumbashi’s faculty of agronomy and deputy director of the Open Forests Urban Observatory, the problem stems from an interpretation of the mining code. Decision makers have historically given priority to the mining code over the forest code. Now, however, a mining code reform incorporates more principles involved in the protection of ecosystems.
Guiding farmers away from deforestation
Kinandu inhabitants, amongst others in the Katanga region, make a living with slash-and-burn agriculture. Growing food crops for self-sufficiency may not put pressure on the forest on an individual level, but taken as a whole, these activities have a real impact on forest destruction.
A study published in the Belgian journal Tropicultura (2017) ranks the causes of the miombo vegetation loss around Lubumbashi as primarily by agricultural development, charcoal production, urban expansion, then mining activity.
In several of the region’s villages, the traditional modes of production are constantly changing due to the urban pressure. The commercial cultivation of maize and legumes such as beans, for example, requires large tracts of land. To feed a little more than half of the 4.6 million of the province’s population living in cities, the province of Haut-Katanga has been seeking to increase the share of local corn production for the last five years. Since then, industrial production has scaled up.
According to the authorities, 800,000 tons of maize are needed each year to feed the population. The region depends on imports from southern Africa to bridge the gap.
Moreover, in the absence of new sources of energy for all, the overall consumption of fuelwood continues to increase. To date, this consumption is estimated to be of 2.87 million tons of wood, for an estimated population in Lubumbashi of 2.281 million inhabitants, according to a carried out by Cirad (Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development).
The reconstruction of the degraded landscape as well as the safeguarding of what remains of it is hard work. Although 20 of the 30 forest communities formed have acquired their land titles, taking on the tasks that come along with community forestry may not be easy in the long run.
“We need accountability, ecological citizenship and for people to understand that we should take responsibility for the management of our forests in order to guarantee their protection for future generations,” proposes Jean-Pierre Djibu.
While the community forestry project ends on July 31, 2022, says professor Jonathan Ilunga, supporting the communities with still be necessary. He believes this is a role that the state can play.
The danger, says Ilunga, is if the government does not take over the project. The good news is that even if their attention towards one project dies down after a few years, entire communities may still engage in future projects as long as it is in line with their interests.
Banner image: Kinandu residents tending to the nursery. Image courtesy of Didier Makal.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at the major forest and conservation trends coming out of 2021 and 2022 with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler, and IUCN senior program officer, Swati Hingorani. Listen here: