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Supported by USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, WRI worked with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and other partners to pass community forestry legislation in 2016. Lauren Williams, Theodore Trefon and Theo Way ventured to North Kivu to see what people on the ground think about it.

A bumpy landing on a once-paved airstrip welcomed us to Beni in the volatile province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As we drove down a surprisingly well-paved, tree-lined road, we came face to face with something the region is better known for than forests and farmers: heavily-armored U.N. vehicles offered a harsh reminder of the DRC’s decades-long, low-intensity conflict between militias, rebels and the Congolese army.

Against this ominous backdrop, we took stock of progress on what has the potential to be a more positive trend: legislation that allows communities to secure title to their forests.

Community forestry has long been hailed as a strategy for reducing poverty and improving conservation by empowering communities to manage their forest resources directly, but it is a recent experiment for the DRC. In the two years since the country passed its community forestry legislation, WRI and local partners such as CODELT have rolled out a series of pragmatic tools and guidelines to help communities and authorities navigate the application process.

Transportation in the Congo's central basin is hampered by innumerable river-crossings like this one in Tshuapa province. Mobility and getting goods to and from markets is an overwhelming development challenge. Photo by Theodore Trefon
Transportation in the Congo's central basin is hampered by innumerable river-crossings like this one in Tshuapa province. Mobility and getting goods to and from markets is an overwhelming development challenge. Photo by Theodore Trefon

So far, 34 community forest concessions have been allocated in three provinces. All have been supported by international environmental NGOs or local civil society partners, as communities themselves simply do not have the financial resources or managerial know-how to complete the process on their own. The complexity of the process and the many intermediaries involved make it more difficult to ensure that community forestry initiatives uphold the interests of the people they are meant to benefit.

There are at least nine proposed community forestry sites in North Kivu in the eastern part of DRC, but no titles have yet been awarded. Based on our experience there, we identified three prerequisites for community forestry success.

1. Understand local community dynamics

In a ramshackle classroom on the outskirts of Beni, we met with half a dozen village elders to discuss progress on their bid to establish and manage a community forestry concession. They have clearly been well-informed about the process by partner organizations, citing specific articles in the Forest Code. They also echoed what others in North Kivu told us: the law provides a welcome opportunity to secure land rights.

However, the concept of secure land tenure is riddled with ambiguity. In densely-populated, multi-ethnic areas like North Kivu, defining who is and is not part of the community is not an easy task. Without proper oversight, community forestry concessions could be used to exclude vulnerable groups and exacerbate local tensions. This challenge is not unique to North Kivu; on a previous mission in Tshuapa province, when focus group participants were asked why they wanted to go through the community forestry application process, they responded, “to protect us from our neighbors.”

NGOs supporting community forestry need to understand social dynamics and which actors are regarded as legitimate decision-makers and resources users. Creating detailed maps of social networks within and between neighboring communities and ensuring a robust process of free, prior and informed consent are first steps to building community trust.

2. Clarify land and resource rights

The demand for land in North Kivu presents a sharp contrast with the titles already awarded in Tshuapa province — where population density is much lower and migration less frequent — that are close to the maximum community forest size of 50,000 hectares. One contact noted that their proposed community forest is 2,600 hectares (6400 acres) for a population of roughly 7,600 people — an amount equal to about one-third of a hectare per person. There is not enough land to sustain traditional farming practices, and even customary land ownership is often disputed between village members and elites who sell land to outsiders such as artisanal loggers and miners.

Participatory land-use mapping, in which communities create maps of their land and its boundaries and uses, is already required under the community forestry process. Groups assisting communities in this exercise should ensure that it identifies ownership and use rights, relationships between different resource users, and areas under dispute.

3. Evaluate economic feasibility

Community forests in DRC can be managed for multiple purposes, notably small-scale logging, non-timber forest product harvesting, subsistence agriculture and conservation. While most people interviewed indicated that they would pursue small-scale economic projects as part of their activities within their community forest, conservation was also cited as a major objective.

However, our discussions revealed that insufficient thought has been given to how these conservation activities or other small-scale projects will generate household earnings. Most communities and their supporters are focused on the first step: acquiring land rights. Yet for community forestry to ultimately be worth their time and effort and provide viable sources of income, economic studies must be carried out. Failure to do so could undermine the process.

To address this gap, we recommend that groups supporting community forestry identify wealth creation opportunities or conduct feasibility assessments for different management options. Communities can then make informed decisions about opportunities and costs before they apply or adopt a particular management objective.

Focus group on community rights and responsibilities in Tshuapa province’s Lomako Reserve. Photo by Theo Way Nana
Focus group on community rights and responsibilities in Tshuapa province’s Lomako Reserve. Photo by Theo Way Nana

Hope for the Future

Community forestry has generated both excitement and skepticism. Time will tell if it is just a trend or part of a long-term solution to improve livelihoods while sustainably managing forests. One thing is clear: the opportunity for communities to legally have a say over what happens to their land is unprecedented and meaningful. Many Congolese and dedicated partners are forging ahead with the attitude that it is better to try — and stumble — than abandon the hope of taking control of the country’s amazing natural resource wealth even amid conflict and challenges.