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Earlier this year, three communities in the Tshopo province of DR Congo received forest concession titles. The government and NGOs believe that these will help decrease deforestation and poverty, but researchers have casted doubts whether these expectations are realistic. Alphonse Maindo, Director of Tropenbos DRC, is cautiously optimistic.
The forests of DR Congo in Central Africa are enormous. They stretch over 100 million hectares, and provide a source of livelihood to around 40 million people, many of whom live in poverty. Deforestation rates have doubled over the past 10 years. In 2018, DR Congo had the second biggest forest loss worldwide, after Brazil and ahead of Indonesia, mostly due to agricultural expansion and heavy dependence on wood for fuel, spurred by the rapidly growing population.
Hoping to tackle the combined challenges of deforestation and poverty, NGOs and the government started rolling out a national strategy for community forestry in 2018. The ambition is to turn large parts of the country’s forests into community forest concessions. These should enable communities to profit from the sustainable management of the forest.
Community forest concessions are located outside of strictly protected areas and logging concessions, and can be up to 50,000 hectares each. Within a concession, a community is allowed to exploit the forest for subsistence and commercial purposes, forever, as long as it follows a management plan that has been approved by the authorities. Each concession is governed by a village forest committee, which consists of several community members. In 2018, Equateur Province issued the first community forests. Since then, the number of community concessions has been growing gradually to about 65 in early 2020, with a total surface area of about 1.2 million ha.
Among the most recent ones, are three community forest concessions in the Tshopo province, covering around 90,000 hectares. The communities received their titles last February, during an official ceremony. It was a festive event. There were officials from the provincial government, and representatives of NGOs and the Dutch embassy. Alphonse Maindo was there too. As Director of Tropenbos DR Congo, he had been closely involved in the process of getting the titles formalized, and he knows the communities well. Here, Maindo talks about the opportunities offered by community forest concessions, as well as challenges, based on his experience in the Tshopo province.
The three communities that received their concession titles are located in an area with extensive forests, explains Maindo. Most people are farmers. They grow rice and peanuts, to sell at the market, and cultivate maize, cassava and bananas mainly for their own consumption. The local diet is further supplemented with fish, caterpillars, and bushmeat and honey from the forest. The forest is under increasing pressure from logging, mining and agriculture. According to Maindo, community forest concessions will help to curtail such threats.
The main change is that they can now prevent the destruction of their forests. For example, two weeks ago a local leader, who had made a deal with a military official, wanted to start logging in the community concession. But other community members found out, and the community forest committee stood up and said: “No, you cannot do this”. The concession title gave the committee the right and confidence to do so. As such, I believe community concessions can help to prevent deforestation.
This will only happen under certain conditions. We need to invest more in these communities, to enable them to develop economic activities. They need access to credit and markets. And, importantly, we need to invest in their entrepreneurship, so that they can develop ways to make money from managing their forest concessions.
A recent study in two community forest pilot sites in the northeast of DR Congo found that the concessions had not resulted in a real income increase. The result were published in a scientific journal article. As main culprit, the researchers point at the costs of complying with regulations. In addition to the costs of the application process itself, communities face a range of other costs after the title has been granted, including taxes on economic activities and payments for logging permits. The researchers conclude that the expenses are too high to make community forestry viable, leaving people disillusioned. Alphonse Maindo—who is not only the Director Tropenbos DR Congo, but also a professor at the University of Kisangani—knows the study well, as he supervised the MSc dissertation that led to the article.
The researchers focussed on activities such as logging, hunting and firewood collection, and found that these did not generate sufficient income to earn back investments made. However, the study was conducted at a very early stage of the development of community concessions. I expect that, over time, and with increased experience, the costs will decrease. In that sense, the study was too pessimistic in my view. Also, it focussed exclusively on the economics, and not on the social, political and cultural benefits. Owning forest lands empowers communities to better protect them against outsiders; it changes the power relations.
People are not yet optimizing their incomes. They often do not have a good idea of markets, and ways to add value to their products. So, in addition to decreasing costs, I would say there is a need to develop and encourage local entrepreneurship. That is why we are giving trainings on the management of individual and community-based enterprises, with a focus on market analysis and development. We do not only focus on traditional forestry activities, but also on developing smarter agricultural systems, for example by combining cocoa and food crops. Such agroforestry systems can replace slash and burn agriculture, and will increase people’s incomes. We need to assist communities to develop such diverse systems, and to secure their place in value chains. Finally, we have to recognize that community institutions that manage concessions are often weak in the beginning, which means there is a high risk of what we call elite capture. Powerful people are trying to capture the benefits from the forest, so we need to help communities to deal with this.
The three communities that received their concession titles in February had gone through a long and complicated process before finally getting their concession titles formalized. It was a bumpy road, says Maindo. Application procedures often depend on the willingness of individuals within the government’s administration, and this can function as a bottleneck. He stresses that, for the national strategy for community forestry to be a success, the government will need to start showing true commitment, by making the process easier and cheaper.
The main obstacles came from the administration. First of all, we had to deal with a civil servant who was supposed to help the communities with the practical preparations, including the development all the official paperwork. This process was painfully slow, and the person kept on asking for money. It was clear that he didn’t care much for the communities. Secondly, we had quite a few problems with powerful people who didn’t want the communities to get titles. They were afraid that it would reduce their influence on the communities, and that it would affect their own access to the forest resources, so they were actively trying to make the process fail. One of these people was the Provincial Minister in charge of forests. He kept on adding new obstacles—everything to prevent the communities from getting their concessions. Finally, he got out, and now we have a Minister who supports the process. Clearly, the whole concept of community forest concessions is still new, so the experiences with the first concessions are important to build understanding among government officials.
I am afraid communities are heavily dependent on outside support, simply because the costs are too high for the communities themselves to bear. For example, the application process requires that the community establishes the boundaries of the concession area, and makes an assessment of the natural resources. For this, they need an expert and equipment, and that costs money. Next to that, external support is needed to build the capacity of communities to prepare management plans and develop partnerships and markets. This is not different from other community-based developmental processes.
Does the reliance on NGOs pose risks? Yes. In many places in the country, international NGOs are supporting application processes. The risk is that this will result in a donor-dependent attitude among communities. We already see this happening in some of the communities where we work. There are people who expect the NGOs will do all the work, and this decreases local ownership and the commitment that is necessary for making community forestry a success.
What would need to change? What is lacking now, is the commitment of the Provinces, who are in charge of the allocation processes. They should step up. They should send their own experts to help communities with the technical preparation work—free of charge. The government should also ensure transparency of the whole process. At the same time, civil society organizations will need to develop stronger partnerships with local governments and the private sector, and help communities to organize themselves in cooperatives and develop businesses. Indeed, I would say the role of civil society organizations is key—without their active involvement, the national strategy for community forestry is not likely to achieve the expected results.