Community forestry can work, but plans in the Democratic Republic of Congo show what’s missing - CIFOR

The Congo river basin spans six central African countries: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo. It is known as “Africa’s lung” because it hosts the world’s second largest tropical forest. It covers an area of around 3 million square kilometres – almost the size of India.


This massive forest acts as a huge “carbon sink”, trapping carbon dioxide and storing it as biomass. It’s home to rich and unique flora and fauna, and sustains and shelters millions of people, providing for their needs in food and energy.


Deforestation rates are still low compared to other tropical regions, but population growth, national industrial development plans, and smaller-scale production of charcoal, crops, minerals, timber and wild meat are rapidly increasing the pressure on the forest.


In particular, most communities clear forests for agriculture and related subsistence activities – such as charcoal making and artisanal logging – to make a living. These are today among the top drivers of forest disturbance.


The good news is that potential solutions to decrease such disturbances exist. Community forestry models included in the legal frameworks of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond are among them. Models vary, but in general community forestry means the government grants communities rights over a given area which they must manage sustainably.


Formal rights is the key here, as community forest titles do not always come with the full “bundle of rights” such as access and use rights to management, exclusion and alienation.


In Cameroon, for example, communities are granted the right to establish and manage a community forest, but no tenure is given. In other words, the state can decide at any time to convert the granted area to non-forest uses.


In the Democractic Republic of the Congo (DRC) things are different. There, millions of hectares of forests are potentially available for communities. They can ask the government to grant them - in perpetuity and with use and management rights - community concessions up up to 50,000 hectares, roughly the size of Kinshasa.


This means – for the first time – granting communities formal rights to the forests they have inhabited since time immemorial, including the very important right of recourse if unauthorised resource extraction occurs.


We conducted research on the DRC model, and we found a lot of potential but also some weaknesses which we believe need redressing. The most serious was that estimates on the financial returns of the business models that communities plan to adopt are rarely conducted.


It’s essential that this is done so that planners can balance local income and sustainable management. Communities will be more likely to protect forest resources, and possibly even restore already degraded lands, if they perceive direct benefits to their livelihoods.


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