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Three years into a restoration project, Yangambi, a lush forest landscape in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has just celebrated the planting of its millionth new tree.
Home to a famous research station since the 1930s, Yangambi has long served as an open-air laboratory for the study of tropical agriculture and the Congo Basin forests. When the research station was established, thousands of hectares of primary forests were converted into experimental plots and plantations of commodity crops, such as oil palm and rubber.
However, following decades of instability and conflict in the country, the plantations were abandoned and became fields for small-scale farmers to grow subsistence crops – mostly cassava, the local food staple. Poor practices and decades of over-exploitation now see farmers, which comprise most of Yangambi’s population, faced with loss of soil fertility. The only option to obtain sufficient harvests is to continue to expand their farmlands through itinerant agriculture, causing further forest encroachment.
This is why in 2018, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), together with local partners, launched a E.U.-funded restoration initiative that aims at bringing these degraded lands back into productivity through tree-planting and alternative livelihood activities such as beekeeping and animal breeding. The planting of the millionth tree, in late April 2021, marked a key milestone toward its goal of restoring 2,000 hectares of land by 2022.
Restoration is ultimately about creating opportunities for people, according to Paolo Cerutti, a senior scientist at CIFOR and project manager. “People burn the forest today because what they burned yesterday provides them no option to remain: fertility and productivity decrease, improved crop varieties are not readily available, and there are no extension services supporting farmers willing to intensify and diversify on the same piece of land.
“We try to break this cycle through multiple activities, including seasonal tree planting operations which provide better local livelihoods and foster the diversification of incomes,” he says.
The project has focused on job creation, according to a CIFOR publication. Over 1,800 people have been employed in various roles, ranging from taking care of seedlings at the nurseries to guarding the trees against bush fires. The impacts on the local economy have become tangible.
“With the money I earned in plantation, I started a small business that provides an income for the rest of the year,” says Darius Lisendja, a tree planter from Yangambi. A recent survey by CIFOR shows that the number of stalls in the weekly local market has more than doubled since the project started. Imported products from as far as Kenya have become available, and hundreds of people from neighboring villages visit Yangambi on market days.
Like most of rural DRC, Yangambi is off-the-grid. To meet their energy needs, locals mostly rely on firewood for preparing meals and small solar panels to charge basic appliances like radios.
There are currently several initiatives aimed at relaunching research activities and promoting economic development in Yangambi – potentially providing game-changing opportunities to build a sustainable landscape and improve the local living conditions. However, their potential is limited by the lack of power. For example, a new business incubator has been set to support local entrepreneurs, but most added-value projects require electricity to become feasible.
According to Cerutti, one answer lies on cogeneration – a very efficient technology that generates electricity and heat from a single fuel source. While the objective of the project is to plant an ever-increasing number of fruit- and caterpillar-bearing trees to contribute to improved diets, most of the trees planted in the short-term are fast-growing species with high calorific value that can be used as biomass.
Many of these species also contribute to increasing soil fertility, which makes them ideal for farmers to integrate into agroforestry systems.
By combining lines of acacia trees (Acacia auriculiformis) with improved cassava, for example, farmers obtain higher yields and earn a salary – immediate benefits – while in six years they will be able to harvest wood for energy. Both actions should reduce pressure on forests, while meeting needs for the population.
As part of the AFR100 initiative, the DRC has pledged to bring 8 million hectares of land into restoration by by 2030. Learning from early experiences like the one in Yangambi will be key to achieving this goal.
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