How Congo seeks prosperity that leaves its precious rainforest intact

© Bart Lasuy


Congo wants to show itself as a country coming up with solutions to climate change. But if it wants to succeed in that mission, the country will also have to listen to the grievances of its ailing population. Useful first steps are being taken, but the road is still long. “It takes time to change human habits.”

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepLOriginal Source.

The world’s second largest rainforest is located in the Congo Basin. The immense forests play a significant role in the ecological balance of our planet. Not only because they remove CO2 from the air, but also because they are a huge carbon sink. It is therefore of paramount importance that we do everything possible to save this green lung from destruction.

As much as 70% of the Central African forest lies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). To combat deforestation in the giant Central African country and encourage reforestation, several programmes have been set up.

The largest and most ambitious of these is undoubtedly that of the Congolese government and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), a group of international donors led by Norway. In 2015, the two concluded an initial agreement. In it, they committed to releasing some 200 million dollar between 2016 and 2021 to stop the loss of Congolese forests.

This was matched by a twin-track policy. On the one hand, CAFI wants to reform the Congolese policy framework on energy, land use planning, agriculture and family planning to reduce deforestation. “Because if you want projects on the ground to be successful, it is important to also establish an appropriate policy framework,” stresses Jules Katubadi, who is closely following developments at the Norwegian embassy in Kinshasa.

On the other hand, a series of integrated projects are being rolled out at the provincial level: Projet Intégré or PIREDD. REDD thereby refers to “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.” REDD is an important part of the UN climate convention. In short, PIREDDs are broad projects that seek to reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation in many ways, primarily by preventing or reducing deforestation.

“The combination of national reforms and provincial projects increases the coherence of the approach,” believes Augustin Mpoy, a lawyer who has been closely following the specific policy for years. “I note that CAFI has succeeded in helping to establish new policy frameworks. Moreover, the initiative’s approach is increasingly supported by the government. When Félix Tshisekedi took office as the new president, he had not even heard about it. In 2021, he personally signed a new agreement with CAFI at the Glasgow climate summit.”

New laws

Congo wants to show itself as a pays solution — a country coming up with solutions to climate change. Among the most important achievements, Mpoy mentions the new law on land use planning. “Previously, different ministries allocated double or multiple uses for the same zone. That practice led to countless conflicts. Today it is much more difficult.”

In addition, the new law stipulates that local people will have a say. Its basic rights will be taken into account, Mpoy says. “If the population does not agree with a particular choice and the state still wants to go ahead for reasons of national interest, the government can still expropriate. But it is less common than it used to be.”

Pierre Guigon, who has been following developments in Congo for the World Bank for some time, sees other encouraging political steps. “A new land policy law was adopted in 2021. That ensures sustainable land management and clarifies land rights, which can limit forest conversion.”

Finally, a sustainable agricultural policy that encourages the protection of high-quality forests and sustainable agriculture in savannahs is being planned, Guigon knows.

It is naive to expect the new laws to drastically change the reality on the ground. Just this year, the government granted permits for oil exploration in protected areas — which is prohibited by law. It raises a lot of questions about Congo’s credibility as a pays solution.

Yet the new laws are already creating new opportunities. Moreover, governments can be called to account. For instance, when the Congolese government granted a number of new logging concessions that went against earlier agreements, CAFI stopped its funding until the government retraced its steps.

© Bart Lasuy


Intermediary structures

To manage the use of CAFI or World Bank funds, intermediary structures were set up. The Programme des Investissement Forestières (PIF), which falls under the Ministry of Environment, labels itself as the executor of World Bank projects. In turn, the Fonds National REDD (FONAREDD for short), set up by the CAFI, is attached to the Ministry of Finance.

However, the ministries do not decide on the spending of funds alone. Various international actors are also involved. “If the PIF or FONAREDD were directly under the ministry, more resources would be lost. Officials are so poorly paid that the temptation to skim some of the money is too great,” clarifies Yannick Lwamba, deputy director of the PIF.

This may to some extent clarify why much of the CAFI or PIF funds are effectively spent on the ground, and also visible there. That Congolese politicians do not have total control over how the money is spent is, of course, the result of an agreement between donors and Congolese politicians. An agreement that is not set in stone, and can always be adjusted.

Ambitious projects

Meanwhile, there are PIREDDs in nine Congolese provinces. Effectively, they are very ambitious projects aimed at encouraging the population to deal differently with the country’s natural resources, not in the least its forests. This presupposes spatial planning, more sustainable agriculture and energy policies, support for family planning, and so on.

PIREDDs operate with budgets ranging from 10 to 30 million euros and run for 3-5 years. “That is too little money, and the duration is too short. You cannot make a lasting difference with that,” said Victor Kabengele, deputy coordinator of FONAREDD.

PIREDD-Plateau, located in the west of the central-western province of Mai-Ndombe, was the first-ever project between 2016 and 2020. The World Bank invested 14 million dollar into it; the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) won the tender for its implementation.

Belgian Hicham Daoudi was in charge of the operations at the time. “We set up 214 local development committees in as many villages. 133 of them have drawn up a management plan for their natural resources. That means that, first of all, we mapped how the territory was divided between savannahs, forests, fisheries, hunting grounds and so on.”

“To protect the forests, we wanted farmers to adopt a different way of life, away from nomadic farming.”

“To protect the forests, we wanted farmers to adopt a different way of life, away from nomadic farming. But to be able to do so, farmers need to earn more, for instance by producing for the market. That is why we repaired more than 250 kilometres of roads and built 17 bridges.”

In August 2022, we visited the PIREDD-Mai-Ndombe, in western Congo. The project covers an area of 100,000 km2 (over three times the area of Belgium) and received a budget of 30 million dollar from CAFI. Phase 1 of the project began in May 2018 and ran until the end of 2021. At the time of our visit, the second phase was expected.

General project manager of PIREDD-Mai-Ndombe, Philippe Collas, reports that the project has launched 480 local development committees (LOCs). Together, these cover 37,000 km2. The criticism from the NGO Rainforest Alliance UK is that many of these LOCs have a modest support base among the population. Turning committees in all those villages into living structures in three years is without doubt a big challenge.

“A good relationship between the villagers as well as the accessibility of a village are prerequisites for us to set up an LOC,” John Mokuba, the agronomist who led the PIREDD in the Inongo territoire, tells us. “Where there is deep conflicts, it is very difficult to get anything off the ground.”

© Bart Lasuy


”Charcoal plantations”

In territoire Kutu, which is 40% savannah, the project has reforested 2,000 hectares and planted 1,600 hectares of palm trees. The reforestation takes the form of fast-growing acacias, with cassava planted between the rows of trees. It has since become a tried and tested combination, as the acacias bring nitrogen into the soil, which makes the cassava grow better.

The reforestation takes the form of fast-growing acacias, with cassava planted between the rows of trees.

The advantage of this forest agriculture is that it provides the population with an immediate first harvest of cassava. There is usually no second harvest, because the trees are too big by then. After seven years, the acacia can be cut down and made into charcoal. Then you get new acacia shoots and the circle can start again.

In this way, largely barren savannahs are used to produce charcoal (and food). Thus, part of the forest can be safeguarded. “It works well here, in Kutu. Everyone has their own piece of plantation. Therefore, people take better care of it,” says Jean-Claude Muwo, who leads the project in the Kutu territoire. He is also excited about the new oil press installed in Isaka village to press palm nuts. “Many farmers have a quarter acre of palm trees. That earns them 700 dollar a year in palm oil.”

It becomes clear when we drive to Bopako that the continued existence of the plantations is not a given. The village was part of the PIREDD Plateau. The five acacia plantations were all burnt down, including the beehives.

“There is no maintenance: no firebreaks, no removal of the dry grasses and so on,” Muwo replies when we ask him about the main reasons for the destruction. “Moreover, these were collective plantations that belonged to everyone and therefore no one. This complicated maintenance.”

On top of that, funding stopped in 2020, leaving the project without guidance for almost two years. “It takes seven years before you can ‘harvest’ charcoal. A project that barely lasts four years leaves farmers to their own devices. That is not a good approach,” Muwo said.

“It takes seven years before you can ‘harvest’ charcoal. A project that barely lasts four years leaves farmers to their own devices.”

Franz, who supervised the project in Bopako at the time, figures that the five plantations together required an investment of 20,000 euro. That amount quite literally went up in smoke.

In Congo-Central, formerly Bas-Congo, we visit smallholder farmers who successfully started plantations of acacia and cassava. “For small-scale forest agriculture, we had envisaged 5,000 hectares in Congo-Central. It ended up being 7,600 hectares,” says Yannick Lwamba of the PIF.

The reason behind this is that the proximity of the Congolese capital Kinshasa causes a high charcoal price. So high in fact, that the farmers of the village of Buense, thanks in part to the guidance of local NGO CEDEF, formed a cooperative that used the combined proceeds to buy, among other things, a cassava mill and a truck.

Charcoal will undoubtedly remain a very important source of energy in Congo. Therefore, the further expansion of plantations of acacia and cassava can effectively reduce the pressure of large population centres on the forests. This is another reason why the World Bank is preparing projects to supply Congo’s major population centres with more sustainable charcoal.

Philippe Collas is convinced that you can make a difference especially in the savannahs. “There you can create mass, I have seen that in Madagascar. In the forest, it is much more difficult,” he argues, and so in the more forested areas, other avenues are being pursued.

© Bart Lasuy


Long-term projects

North of the dark lake of Mai-Ndombe (literally “black water”), we visit the village of Isanga, in the territoire of Inongo. There, people are trying to enrich areas now deforested for agriculture with additional crops, such as cocoa and improved palm and cassava varieties.

“The cradle of Congolese cocoa and palm oil production was in Mai-Ndombe; the region is extremely suitable for it,” says agronomist John Mokuba, who leads PIREDD-Mai-Ndombe in Inongo. “By helping farmers start and expand cultivation, we hope to increase the yield of existing fields. In these ways, we also want to reduce the need to cut down new forest.”

“By helping farmers start and expand cultivation, we hope to increase the yield of existing fields. In these ways, we also want to reduce the need to cut down new forest.”

In Isanga, we walk by the cocoa plantation of Bolaseke Zeno, the chairman of the local development committee. The cocoa trees are shaded by large trees and, like the banana trees, seem to thrive in the pleasant shade. The 10 hectares of cocoa planted in the village, with a maximum of half an acre per farmer, could yield 15,000 dollar as early as next year. That is a high sum here, deep in the interior of Congo.

The palm trees, which also combine well with partial tree cover, will yield even more. A new variety of cassava is also being combined. “Many villagers initially hesitated. The plantation requires a lot of work and does not generate revenue immediately. It takes two to three years,” Zeno said.

The project boosts motivation by also compensating people to set up the small cocoa and palm oil plantations. The paiements pour services ecologiques (PSE) — payments for ecological services, so to speak — are the lubricant of PIREDDs. They provide the fastest additional income for the population. “Those fees helped me pay off my marriage debts,” testifies a participant in the project.

When we take a breather in the small centre, the villagers gather to talk to us. The initial scepticism has subsided. Many others would now also like to participate and hope to be considered for the second phase of the project.

There is no real ban on forest clearing in Isanga, Mokuba stresses: “The hope is that people may migrate less to the forest because they spend much more time on their plantation.” Progress has been made. At the same time, it remains a big step for many people to deviate from the usual pattern and put so much work into developing a cocoa plantation.

“It involves interventions in small areas that are very spread out over the immense territory,” Collas sighs. “Sometimes I think that in the forest zones we would be better off asking people to move.” René Ngongo, an ancien of the green movement in Congo, recognises the problem. Yet he stresses that “it simply takes time to change human habits. Projects should deliver long-term results.”

When we glance at the summary of the 14.5 million dollar in spending from Phase 1 of the project, something strikes us. Not even half of the budgeted 4 million PSE has been realised. For the functioning and agencies of the project itself, however, the budgeted amounts have been well exceeded (2.5 million instead of 1.6 million). It creates the impression that the people tasked with implementing the project certainly have not overlooked themselves.

© Bart Lasuy


Protecting a piece of forest

Via Lake Mai-Ndombe and a network of rivers, we sail to the territoire Kiri. More than 60% of it is still forest. Here too, efforts are being made to provide farmers with extra income, including cocoa trees, palm trees, bee-keeping and fish drying. In this way, they hope to reduce the need to cut down forest.

The project leader for Kiri, Macsance Moyiba, says that residents in forested villages receive compensation if they protect part of the forest. “In those forests, they are not allowed to cut down or do commercial hunting or fishing. In return, we pay them 2.5 dollar per hectare of protected forest. In Molele village, they chose to protect 500 hectares. That earns them 1,250 dollar. A lot of money, this deep in the forest.”

The next day, we set course for Molele. The road is usable only for bikes and mopeds — everywhere there is forest. Despite the dry season, it has already rained a lot here. When we arrive in Molele, many of the village’s men are waiting for us. Later it will turn out that they were paid for it.

In Molele too, after initial reluctance, the residents eagerly take part in planting cocoa and palm tree fields. They earn money from the work itself, and later from the harvest. As in Isanga, more and more people want to participate in the second phase.

Yet one of the growers notes that he has not seen anyone from the project for months. “I know little about palm trees and need their expertise to know if they are faring well,” he says. The reason is that the first phase of the project has ended. People are waiting for the money for the second phase.

It shows that short-term projects are useless here: it takes time to get people on board with your story. Those who think they can achieve a lot in three years are better off not starting.

Nzongelo Botio, the chairman of the local development committee, tells how the protected forests raised 1,250 dollar. That amount was used to give the local school some decorum, including the purchase of blackboards.

The project’s appeal in the meantime is evident when we visit the community of pygmies, with Tsomia Mputu testifying how the money he earned in the tree nursery enabled him to pay his wife’s dowry and buy a bicycle. “As I stand here now, in my current state, I thank PIREDD for it,” he said.

Moments later, the atmosphere becomes quite heated, a symptom of deep-seated tensions between the bantus and pygmies. The project is meeting fierce criticism. It supposedly favours the bantus. The peuples autochtones — often described in the project language as “p.a.” — or indigenous peoples, reportedly would be allowed to perform fewer ecological services and establish fewer plantations.

Nzongelo Botio, the chairman of the development committee, says more members of the indigenous community initially participated. But when those did not water the saplings on a regular basis, they were replaced by bantus.

The project knows how to unite people to stop the deforestation of the forests. Only the practical implementation could be improved.

By motorbike, we ride ten kilometres deeper into the forest. Then it’s another two-hour hike to the protected forest. We follow our guides, who very smoothly stride through the forest barefoot or with plastic slippers. The photographer and I try to follow sighing and sweating. Suddenly, we see toppled posts with a faint red colour. They indicate that we have reached the protected area. On some large trees, some red colour was once applied, but it too has already faded.

One thing must be clear: the project knows how to unite people to stop the deforestation of the forests. Only the practical implementation could be improved. Perhaps it would also be a good idea to involve foresters in monitoring the forest. But that means investing more.

© Bart Lasuy


Ecological development path

Nevertheless, it pays off. Because PIREDD-Mai-Ndombe helps prevent carbon emissions and store CO2. Exactly how much is calculated at the project level, says Assani Ongala, Congo’s national REDD coordinator.

“Based on our research, redone by the University of Maryland, we came up with a CO2 stockpile of 32 million tonnes. For the year 2019-2020, according to our calculations, 6 million tonnes of CO2 were added. An independent expert has yet to confirm our findings.”

Depending on how successful the project is, there could be many (or few) more tonnes to come. The World Bank has already pledged to buy 11 million tonnes. “Contractually, two dollars per tonne was initially stipulated, but as market prices rose, the World Bank raised its price to 5 dollar per tonne.”

This would then amount to 55 million dollar in total. The rest of the carbon credits can then be sold on the open market.

“What they yield there is uncertain. The large private concession of World Wildlife Carbon, accounting for 3,000 km2, has already managed to get 17 dollar per tonne on that free market,” Ongala said. “So it could fetch hefty sums.”

Meanwhile, the sharing of financial returns has already been negotiated. 4% of it is non-performance-based and will go to the indigenous and local communities anyway for their historical merit in conserving the forest. 17.5% goes to the only major private project: World Wildlife Carbon’s 3,000 km2 conservation concession, which works with local communities to avoid carbon emissions.

The remaining 78.5% will go towards further supporting the PIREDDs and achieving an ecological development pathway. The money will again be spent through a complex management structure at the county level. Whether and how that will work is not clear at this stage. It remains a difficult but crucial task to effectively get the funds on the ground and distribute them in a way that has the support of the people.

This article was produced with support from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Special Journalism.

John Vandaele reports on the social, environmental, economic and governance aspects of globalisation.

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