Q+A: Paolo Cerutti on the Congo Basin in the State of the World’s Forests report

Maize near Yangambi, DRC. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

In 2021, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lost almost 500,000 hectares of old growth forest, mainly due to small-scale agriculture and local energy needs. The country holds the lion’s share of the Congo Basin rainforest – the second largest in the world – and has a large and rapidly growing population, many of whom depend on this forest for their livelihoods and survival.

In this context, the messages of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2022 report on the “State of the World’s Forests” (SOFO), on the urgent need to develop pathways to recognize the value of standing trees and forests – and unlocking this for local people – are particularly critical.

Since 2007, researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research and the World Agroforestry Center (CIFOR-ICRAF) have worked with partners from government, universities, communities and the private sector to build capacity in the DRC’s forestry sector. , inform national forest policies and improve livelihoods. for vulnerable households through agroforestry and support for the development of sustainable value chains.

We spoke to Senior Scientist Paolo Cerutti, who heads CIFOR-ICRAF’s office in the DRC, to learn more about his perspective on SOFO 2022 and key issues for the Congo Basin ahead of the summit on COP27 climate in Egypt later this year. .

Q: Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted deforestation patterns in the Congo Basin?

A: In the DRC context, the vast majority of deforestation comes from shifting cultivation, and this has not changed with the pandemic. People still needed to eat and continued to expand into the forests to do their fields. We noted some contraction in most value chains at the height of the lockdown, with production areas moving closer to consumption areas and buyers preferring to source from closer family members than standard traders, but it didn’t last long. Charcoal and agricultural produce continued to be in high demand, and once the tougher pandemic response was released, the usual slash-and-burn trend resumed.

Q: How can economic and environmental recovery be simultaneously supported in the context of the Congo Basin?

A: That’s a million dollar question. It’s always a matter of trade-offs and tough choices have to be made at every turn. In general, although much more research adapted to specific local conditions is needed, it is not the technical solutions that are lacking; it is the set of activities and incentives that will improve the means of subsistence of the populations while demonstrating to them the usefulness of maintaining the forest. The problem for countries like the DRC – with some rural communities extremely fragile in terms of food availability, quality of nutrition and lack of alternatives – is to obtain at least some economic and financial incentives to trickle down to the communities, so they can focus more on value-added activities, while reducing the environmental impact they have.

Of course, the added value raises a whole set of questions that should be answered upstream, well outside the traditional “environmental” or “forestry” sectors. How do people access credit or seed capital to be able to innovate and add value to their standard (agricultural) products? How can they intensify agriculture and agroforestry, even plant useful trees, so that they can stay longer on the same land, when they do not own that land? Clearly you cannot limit the discussion to forestry and agriculture, you need to address the deeper issues, such as tenure and governance: who owns the land?

Why innovate, add value, and perhaps get more revenue only for it to be systematically captured along trade routes by anyone with real or self-proclaimed power or authority? These are some of the questions that need urgent answers, otherwise people will continue to prefer to burn primary or secondary forest – then move on and do another cycle of agriculture for self-consumption and a small amount of trade, exhausting the soil as you go. they do – and start again with no real solution in sight.

Q: What opportunities exist to address these issues and scale up restoration and protection?

A: Well, on the positive side, I think forests are at the top of the political agenda today – much more so than they were five or ten years ago. We saw it in Glasgow (at the COP26 climate summit). I have never experienced this level of intensity of discussion on these topics – especially with the president and ministers making personal commitments, looking for alternative solutions and trying to follow them on the ground.

More concretely, it is not only about discussions, pledges and presentations at international events, but also about the legislative texts that have recently been adopted. For example, to mention just one topic that has the potential to span the forest, agriculture, tenure and governance sectors, among others, the DRC Forest Code and its recent decrees of application stimulate the deployment of community forests. This is a big step forward, as it returns ownership (in perpetuity) to local communities, and it tackles issues of land ownership just as much as what you can do and earn from that land.

It’s a step in the right direction, giving people the responsibility as well as the ability to benefit from their forest. Of course, the interesting question is how this is done, and it comes down to the question of the right set of incentives and disincentives and government support. It also takes years, because communities have to develop management plans and so on. But I believe there will be no lasting solution to current trends in deforestation and forest degradation without legal frameworks that give people more power and responsibility in managing forests.

For our day-to-day activities on the ground, another very important point is that these issues also trickle down to discussions at the provincial and local levels – it is no longer something that is perceived as being reserved for the inhabitants of the capital, and c ‘is important. Many local leaders are aware of the issues, and the will to fight against deforestation has definitely increased, if not the means. We no longer hear what we heard 10 or 15 years ago: the idea that “it’s the problem of others; we have a lot of forest; it is a problem for Europe, not for us. It’s already changed, the feeling that we’re in the same boat, and that’s a positive thing.

Q: Looking ahead to COP-27, are there any specific changes you would like to see in terms of Congo Basin governance?

A: The Congo Basin spans several countries and each of them will be responsible for specific changes in the country. In general, though, I think we all need to work to move away, as much as possible, from the siled approach that governing bodies continue to take, with forests here, agriculture there, mining there and tenure elsewhere. These silos do not exist at the local level where we work, as they are all largely on the same terrain, what at CIFOR-ICRAF we prefer to call a ‘landscape’.

Of course, you can still have a logging concession, protected area, agricultural fields, etc., all within the same landscape. But they must be seen and managed as interconnected pieces, so that local communities can make the most of them. It’s something that’s easier said than done, because that’s how countries work, with ministries and so on. But – especially in countries like the DRC where mining is very important and agriculture is literally burning down the forest – these are very important problems, and their solutions will not be limited to the ministries mandated to manage them.

And this applies even more at the local level. Something that needs to happen more and more – otherwise we are not solving the problem – is that ministries, local authorities and different agencies that focus on the different value chains with direct impacts on deforestation (eg , agriculture, mining, energy, forestry), must come together to talk about the causes of deforestation and try to change the way forests are used and managed. If that doesn’t happen, people might think of a nice and easy solution for green community development within the Ministry of Environment or Ministry of Forestry – but ultimately, if there is example of underground oil, a mining permit may well be issued. on this same ground.

This type of discussion needs to happen sooner rather than later, as many licenses (mining, agribusiness, carbon, logging) are already granted at central and provincial levels – even inside some of the oldest protected areas. . It is simply a good land-use planning exercise that needs to take place, backed by transparency and solid information about what has already been granted or is about to be granted. Otherwise, local communities have no chance of being able to manage “their” land.

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