CARPE: Taking back the trees How community forests could change lives in rural Democratic Republic of Congo
On a potholed dirt road cutting through thick sun-dappled foliage, hundreds of miles from the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, the forest is full of people.
Young men push rusty bikes through the red dirt, balancing towering bags of charcoal. Women in bright patterned cloth wade in streams in the forest shade, where they let cassava roots — the staple of the Congolese diet — soak for days, sending a pungent odor wafting through the humidity. Batwa men follow scrawny hunting dogs through dense undergrowth, bowstrings taut as they search for an antelope or monkey for dinner. Groups of girls gather firewood and haul it home on their backs in hand-woven baskets. A smoky haze often hangs over the road, a clue that farmers are burning trees nearby to make way for new cropland in the nutrient-poor soil.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) contains at least half of the Congo Basin rainforest, the largest tropical forest on Earth after the Amazon. But far from an untouched paradise, this forest is put to work.
Inefficient bureaucracy and poor infrastructure have left the DRC’s more than 83 million people expecting little support from the capital. Instead, rural residents turn, as their ancestors did, to the land to provide for their daily needs. However, most of them have only customary rights to land based on tradition. That means that if someone else — a mining company, a team of poachers — comes in from the outside to exploit the land’s resources, the original inhabitant usually has no legal grounds to defend them.
For more than a decade, the Congolese government has been working with USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) and other partners to change this — and give rural communities an explicit right to manage those very forests on which they depend.