CIFOR : Protecting Congo’s botanical treasures
Democratic Republic of the Congo - Nestled within Africa’s biggest rainforest lies what was once the world’s largest tropical agriculture research center.
Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.
It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after DRC gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.
But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here.
Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone. When the Belgian Meise Botanic Garden started working here over ten years ago, they were faced with broken windows, no electricity, outdated equipment and terrible road access.
“When we began our collaboration with the INERA in Yangambi, we were surprised that despite the lack of external assistance and the poor infrastructure, the collection was very well preserved,” explains Francesca Lanata, coordinator of the Meise Botanic Garden’s cooperation program in DRC. “Some of the employees have dedicated their entire lives to protect this knowledge, the least we could do was to commit to sustained support and to improve their working conditions,” she added.