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A new scheme in the Republic of Congo presents an opportunity to reduce poverty and tackle climate change. Community forestry, recognized in the country’s 2020 forest law, aims to allow Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) to collectively and legally hold and manage portions of forest lands and resources. This would help communities protect their forest areas from unwanted logging, agri-business and mining ventures.

There is now compelling evidence that when IPLCs manage forest land and resources they also generate more benefits in the public interest — such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation. Additionally, irrespective of the business model in place, forests managed by communities provide income, fuelwood, charcoal and a large range of other benefits to 2.4 billion people.

Surprisingly though, while Indigenous peoples and local communities have customary stewardship over almost three quarters of the world’s lands, only about 10% of these lands are legally recognized as belonging to IPLCs. In Congo, less than 1% of national territory is legally recognized as belonging to or managed by IPLCs. In contrast, more than 70% of Congolese territory is allocated to the various types of large-scale ventures mentioned before, as well as conservation.

Community forestry can help redress this profound gap, but it needs careful implementation. How this can be done is the next big question.

Thinking About Community Forestry Holistically

Experiences from Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo suggest that community forestry has the potential to address major societal goals including fighting poverty and climate change. At the local level, community forestry offers marginalized groups such as Indigenous peoples and women an avenue to hold and control lands, empowering them to make their own choices about how these lands are used. It can also be a source of stable revenue through the commercialization of various forest products such as timber, non-timber products and carbon.

Residents of Mapati, Republic of Congo take shelter from the sun in the village gathering place.
Residents of Mapati, Republic of Congo, take shelter from the sun in 2019. Residents discovered Mapati was located in the middle of a newly created logging concession, and as trees were cut down residents lived without power or other visible benefit from the exploitation of these resources. Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI

These experiences also show, however, that if not effectively established, community forestry can have negative social and environmental outcomes.

In recent years, there have been unrelenting calls to rethink community forestry. The Brazzaville Roadmap, which provides a plan of attack to tackle some of the barriers to effective community forestry, is an example of this interest in community forestry. Other such calls have been made by a consortium of more than 15 international and national civil society organizations (CSOs) operating across the region.

These calls consistently highlight the need for better alignment between all possible functions of community forestry: land security, poverty alleviation and sustainable resource and environment management. But translating those high-level recommendations into practical country-level actions has often been missed.

5 Key Actions to Operationalize Community Forestry in Congo

WRI started a conversation on community forestry in Congo in 2021, convening a workshop with 17 Congolese national stakeholders and community forestry experts — from the ministries of forest economy, lands and land-use planning; the private sector; CSOs; and IPLC groups.

The following actions emerged as ways to help identify challenges and opportunities to community forestry in the country and options for its operationalization. Here are five key steps to making sure community forestry can work and achieve its goals:

1. Establish a deliberative multi-stakeholder space on community forestry.

Strong collaboration and ownership among governmental agencies in charge of forest, land, economy and agriculture, among others, is crucial. According to the 2020 forest law, portions of logging concessions currently co-managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities and private companies can be converted into community forest permits. It is therefore vital that the private sector, CSOs and donors are part of the dialogue around those permits. With the leadership of the Ministry of Forest Economy, a platform, roundtable or other forms of multi-stakeholder arrangement should be mandated to help ensure community forestry permits lead to positive impacts. The example of the Roundtable on Community Forestry from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo could serve as an inspiration. However, it would need to be contextualized to Congo to take into consideration the specific governance arrangements and the needs of the stakeholders.

2. Increase understanding on the context.

Four research priorities are:

  • Feasibility of existing and potential options for harnessing the full economic, social and environmental benefits of community forestry;
  • Typologies of possible governance arrangements based on existing models in Congolese communities;
  • Mechanisms that could ensure accountability between IPLC groups and supporting groups such as CSOs and local authorities; and
  • Identification of the current level of land ownership and cartography of lands held legally and customarily by IPLCs.

Research on some of those topics exist for other Congo basin countries — especially in Cameroon, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo — and could inform Congo’s efforts.  

3. Inform, consult and train all stakeholders.

The limited knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local communities with respect to law and enforcement mechanisms is often cited as a barrier to good forest governance in Congo. It is also an enabling factor for elites to capture most community-based development initiatives. Strong rules for consulting each stakeholder, especially vulnerable groups, should be put in place and enforced to ensure IPLCs are in control of all processes. The Ministry of Forest Economy should facilitate access to training opportunities based on an approved capacity development plan. Crucially, areas of capacity development should include strategies and techniques that stakeholders can use to create and manage economically viable community forests and be resilient to external pressures. All these capacity development efforts should run in parallel to an intensive communication campaign to reach out local authorities, CSOs, business and other relevant stakeholders.

4. Map customary lands that are eligible for community forestry.

To complement the assessment of Indigenous peoples and local communities’ ownership and control over customary lands, the government and its development partners should create systems and support for communities to map their customary land, and enter these maps into governmental repositories. Several approaches for mapping IPLC land and customary rights currently exist in Congo — such as those proposed by various civil society organizations, companies and the ministry of land affairs. It is important to identify a method to map the collectively held IPLC land (as opposed to the individual or family land within the IPLC boundaries which can be mapped at a later time.) After piloting this method, the second step would consist of mapping a selected number of community forests. The long-term step involves supporting the mapping of all lands claimed by Indigenous peoples and local communities and associated rights. The mapping of such lands goes beyond the mandate of the Ministry of Forest Economy so ministries in charge of land affairs, decentralization, land-use planning and agriculture would also need to engage in this effort.

The residents of Mapati, Republic of Congo display the participatory map they produced with WRI and CDHD.
The residents of Mapati, Republic of Congo display the participatory map produced with WRI and local NGO CDHD illustrating the lands and waters they use for survival in order to fight to continue to use their customary lands. Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI

5. Conduct a phase of experimentation of community forestry.

Between 2016 and 2019, more than 15 international and national CSOs joined forces with other stakeholders to pilot various models of community forestry across the Congo basin. A key lesson learned from this initiative was that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to make it successful. To identify the right model(s) for Congo, the Ministry of Forest Economy and other key stakeholders should agree on a period of experimentation during which they will develop a community forestry strategy with a clear vision and action plan, design guidelines and procedures for creating and managing community forests, pilot projects in different landscapes and cultural settings, and come up with a process for capitalizing all lessons learned in all relevant legal reforms — including beyond the forest sector.

Moving Forward

Community forestry can give Indigenous peoples and local communities a central role in climate, development and governance initiatives. The 2020 forest law now needs to be operationalized.. Implementing the five key actions described above will require political will at all levels, from the Ministry of Forest Economy to local authorities. It will also depend on coordination between all key sectors including agencies in charge of forest, land affairs, land-use planning, decentralization, entrepreneurship, finance and agriculture, and investment from donors and business to ensure the feasibility of this ambitious strategy. And most importantly of all it necessitates the inclusion of IPLCs at all stages, right from the outset of the process.