Out of the woods: How sustainable livelihoods can help Central Africans break free from forest destruction

When asked how she would react if she witnessed someone illegally hunting or collecting firewood from nearby Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Feza Lwango Mamy doesn’t mince words.

“I myself must denounce this person shamelessly, and if possible even go to Tshivanga [the park headquarters],” she says. “We have connections with the park agents.”

Lwango lives in Miti, a village on a sloping dirt road in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Faced with few job prospects, many Miti residents enter the park illegally to hunt and collect fruits, fuelwood and other forest products, as well as cut down trees to make charcoal.

So how did Lwango, a mother with nine children to feed, become such an ardent conservationist?

Thanks to a low-interest microloan granted through a partnership between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the national park, Lwango was able to launch a small business, selling bananas and potatoes. Here’s the catch: In addition to repaying the loan within a year, she and other loan recipients had to promise not to exploit natural resources inside the park. After all, unsustainable use not only threatens the park’s wildlife — including the only eastern lowland gorillas that tourists can visit in the wild — it also undercuts the forest’s long-term economic potential.

In the past, Lwango’s farmer husband was the family’s sole breadwinner. “I expected everything from my husband,” she admits. But her new source of income is already improving life for her family. “I lived in a thatch-roofed house, but with the profit from my small business, I bought [metal] sheets to replace the thatch.”

Feza Lwango Mamy in front of her home in Miti, DRC. After a microloan from WCS enabled her to start a small business selling bananas and potatoes, she used her new income to put a more durable roof on the house where she lives with her husband and nine children. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Feza Lwango Mamy in front of her home in Miti, DRC. After a microloan from WCS enabled her to start a small business selling bananas and potatoes, she used her new income to put a more durable roof on the house where she lives with her husband and nine children. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

No one likes destroying the forest; for many, it’s simply the only viable way to make a living. Chopping down trees with axes, spending hours bent over seedlings in the tropical sun, trekking deeper and deeper into the forest in hopes of finding a rodent or antelope to feed your family — this is back-breaking work that most would gladly abandon given a choice.

Fortunately, now more people have that option. Lwango is benefitting from one of a range of projects supported by the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), a U.S. government-funded initiative that seeks to protect forests and biodiversity while providing Central Africans with means to make a living that lessen forest destruction. Sometimes called “alternative livelihood” projects, these efforts are small-scale, often measurable in the number of chickens hatched or trees planted in one village. Yet across the region, activities in these far-flung communities are boosting household income, building self-sufficiency and allowing the forest to recover so it can continue to act as a lifeline for the more than 117 million people across six countries that depend on it.

Locations of the livelihood projects featured in this story. (Map: World Resources Institute)
Locations of the livelihood projects featured in this story. (Map: World Resources Institute)

Breaking the cycle

For decades, Central Africa has been mired with conflict, instability and ineffective governance — and the forest has been among the casualties.

In a region where civil wars, rampant corruption and mismanagement have stymied many governments’ abilities to deliver everything from functioning roads to steady jobs, the combined toll of millions of people struggling to survive on their own has led to increasing destruction of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s second-largest tropical forest that absorbs a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. On the other hand, decades of unrest may have prevented more organized, large-scale forest exploitation from sources such as industrial logging.  

In places like eastern DRC, forest loss may also help perpetuate a decades-long conflict. In and around the city of Goma, a growing population partially made up of people displaced from conflict has taken a toll on the nearby forests. Faced with dwindling opportunities to make a living from the land, many young men join rebel groups that survive by robbing and kidnapping people who venture into their territory.

As these groups — more than 100 by some counts, though the number changes constantly — terrorize communities, kill bystanders and cut off vital transportation routes, those who can, flee, only to find themselves in another village with few opportunities, or an overburdened refugee camp where families often live in limbo for years.

Stemming this cycle of violence and migration is a complex problem that has baffled government officials, aid workers and community leaders for years. But one underlying solution is clear: better opportunities for local people that nurture rather than destroy the forest that underpins their survival.

Infographic: World Resources Institute
Infographic: World Resources Institute

Livestock over bushmeat

Even by rural Congolese standards, the indigenous village near the northwestern DRC town of Ntondo feels destitute. Here, a community of Batwa (among the indigenous groups long known to Westerners as “pygmies” due to their small stature) live segregated from their ethnic-majority Bantu neighbors down the road, many of whom live in cinder block houses with metal roofs. In contrast, the Batwa’s one-room houses are made of mud with thatch roofs that must be replaced every few months.  

“Today we suffer to feed ourselves. We even exploit the forests that were established as a reserve since [the time of] our ancestors.” — Ilumbe Bofula, Batwa resident of Ntondo, DRC

Traditionally semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who subsisted almost entirely on what they found in the forest, the Batwa have long been looked down on by both the government and the Bantu, forced to settle in permanent towns and to adopt farming.  

“Our ancestors did not have too much trouble feeding themselves,” says Ilumbe Bofula, the president of the village’s community development organization. “Today we suffer to feed ourselves. We even exploit the forests that were established as a reserve since [the time of] our ancestors.”

There are many reasons for the decline in wildlife Bofula references — loss of habitat, poaching for local consumption as well as the urban bushmeat trade — but the bottom line is that with fewer animals to hunt, locals have fewer sources of protein. This deficiency can lead to further problems; malnutrition weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infectious diseases and conditions such as diarrhea, HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

Photo gallery: Sustainable livelihoods at a glance

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WWF, one of CARPE’s implementing partners, has worked with Bofula’s organization to provide the village’s residents with goats that can be eaten, bred and sold as needed. In addition, their manure can be used as fertilizer for their owner’s gardens and fields. Here and in other villages, WWF staff train communities on breeding and husbandry techniques. They also connect farmers with veterinary care; the healthier the livestock, the fewer animals are needed to maintain the population, which in turn reduces the livestock’s impact on the land.

Goats are not the only option; a community might raise sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs or even fish such as tilapia that are reared in hand-dug fish ponds. The species chosen by each village depends on a variety of factors, including climate suitability and local diet preferences.

Not only do domestic animals provide a more reliable source of protein, they also act as a bank of sorts, giving the animals’ owners an emergency fund they can call upon if needed, as in the case of a sick relative.

Better practices, less deforestation

In Bomassa, Republic of Congo, a small town on the Sangha River that is most easily accessible by boat, fishing is a deeply engrained way of life. But as in riverside and coastal towns around the world, more destructive fishing practices coupled with a growing human population and increased demand from urban areas has caused fish numbers to plunge. This has spurred many desperate fishers in the region to resort to even less sustainable practices, such as fishing with mosquito nets that catch everything in sight and leach insecticide into the water supply.

When Bomassa’s fishers noticed a decline in their catches, they realized they had to take action. If they didn’t, they would soon be forced to find a new primary way of feeding themselves — perhaps cutting down a patch of forest to grow crops, or (illegally) hunting in nearby Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.

Emmanuel Mokoube is a fisherman in Bomassa, Republic of Congo. For years, villagers fished with nets made of fine mesh, which depleted local fish populations. Now, under a new agreement within the local fishers’ association (which Mokoube holds in this photo), the fishers have agreed to use nets with larger holes in order to maintain and expand the fish population for the next generation. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Emmanuel Mokoube is a fisherman in Bomassa, Republic of Congo. For years, villagers fished with nets made of fine mesh, which depleted local fish populations. Now, under a new agreement within the local fishers’ association (which Mokoube holds in this photo), the fishers have agreed to use nets with larger holes in order to maintain and expand the fish population for the next generation. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

With support from WCS, Bomassa’s fishers formed an association — the first time they had organized in such a way. In May 2017 its members signed a “mini-charter” that laid out locally determined guidelines for sustainable fishing practices, including using fishing nets with larger mesh and protecting spawning sites. This practice will allow the smaller fish to grow, reproduce and feed the next generation.

Other projects take a more direct approach to reduce the need to cut down more forest. In several DRC provinces, WWF is working with select farmers to set up “model farms” that showcase how to make existing farmland more productive, from agroforestry (interspersing crops with trees and shrubs), to planting a wider range of crop species in order to minimize risk of crop loss from disease or disaster, to the planting of cover crops between harvests that restore the soil’s nutrients and ready it for the next round of cultivation. As a condition for receiving support, the farmers are required to pass on the new techniques they’ve learned to their neighbors.   

Word of mouth has also played a prominent role in the adoption of fuel-efficient cookstoves. Fuelwood and charcoal are the primary energy source for about 90 percent of people in the DRC, but open fires can be unhealthy in enclosed spaces, and demand for wood can strip the land of valuable trees. Fuel-efficient stoves cut fuel consumption in half while bringing a range of benefits to the user, including saved money, reduced respiratory illness and lower safety risk, as women and girls (traditionally those in charge of collecting fuel) don’t have to venture into the forest as often.

In 2008, WWF began working with people in and around the city of Goma in eastern DRC to manufacture and sell these stoves. The company Goma Stove is now financially independent and employs 28 people, not including those who sell stoves through its partner network. The project has been so successful that WWF has subsequently established similar stove production projects in Equateur, Mai-Ndombe and South Kivu provinces.

Forest-friendly jobs

Beyond domestic animals and improved farming, fishing and cooking methods, there’s a third solution that can help people reduce their direct dependence on this forest: the availability of other ways to make money. (See one example in the video below.)

Wrapped in forest leaves for storage and served alongside meat, fish or vegetables, chikwangue might best be described as “cassava Jell-O.” Made from one of Central Africa’s staple crops, chikwangue’s bland yet pungent flavor is an acquired taste, yet it is beloved in the DRC — making it a prime business opportunity for ambitious women.

Hornela Obanda is a widow in Mpaha, a village in Equateur province near the shores of Lac Tumba. She first learned how to make “improved chikwangue” in a training organized by WWF that brought in women from central DRC to share their techniques. Not only is the new production method more hygienic, but the fermentation process also makes the product last longer, a huge asset in a place without refrigeration.

With the extra income from selling chikwangue, Obanda can cover expenses that subsistence farming alone could not. “First, it allows me to contribute to my brothers’ school fees; second, it also allows me to clothe my children and pay for my family’s health care.”

“The sale of the improved chikwangue allows us to pay laborers for some work in the fields, because clearing is not easy for us women.” – Hornela Obanda

As a widow, Obanda often struggles to handle all the farming activities herself. Her chikwangue income helps with that, too. “The sale of the improved chikwangue allows us to pay laborers for some work in the fields, because clearing is not easy for us women.” Obanda is now a supervisor for all the women involved in her village’s project.

When asked what they spend their new income on, the answers of the women in Obanda’s group are almost identical: their children’s education, healthcare and household expenses. This is a common thread across the region, no matter which type of business the women pursue, from raising and selling seedlings in a plant nursery to beekeeping and honey production to improved cookstoves. Studies have shown that when women become breadwinners, they invest a higher percentage of their income into their households than men. This finding spurs hope that the benefits felt by Obanda and her generation will trickle down to their children.

For others, forest conservation plays a more direct role in household income. For example, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park employs about 130 local people. Some are ecoguards tasked with monitoring the park and apprehending poachers, some are researchers and trackers who follow the park’s iconic forest elephants and western lowland gorillas. Others may play different roles, but one thing is certain: Keeping the forest healthy is paramount to their job security.  

The only way forward

For livelihood projects like these to make a dent in reducing deforestation and improving well-being in Central Africa — or anywhere — three conditions are essential. The activities must be viable, with realistic goals that take the local context, from weather to traditional customs, into account. They must be sustainable, both in terms of their environmental impact and their financial plans. And they must be replicable; building on what works and scaling up across the region is crucial to truly reverse the trends of forest and biodiversity loss.

This is a massive undertaking that is riddled with challenges. And there are many ways these projects have failed in the past, some of which have been explored in academic papers critical of their effectiveness. Perhaps an illness wiped out a livestock population. A hunter decided that his domestic duck meat was a nice supplement to wild bushmeat instead of a replacement. A village chief chose to take the benefits of the community’s hard work for himself. Or the funding ran out before a project really got off the ground.

CARPE’s alternative livelihood projects have not been immune to these struggles; rather, failure has been a powerful tool that has helped shape the projects as they develop, adapt and continuously improve their value to communities. The next generation of CARPE activities will look to develop more partnerships with the private sector, and strengthen linkages between local communities and end markets.

No obstacle should overshadow the importance of the task at hand. Business as usual will not work moving forward; one way or another, people will do what they can to survive, and it is only by adopting sustainable alternatives that they can see a brighter future. Through projects run by CARPE’s implementing partners, hundreds of families now have more of a choice regarding where and how they obtain their subsistence — and their neighbors are certainly taking notice.

About the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE)

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) CARPE program supports initiatives to improve the management of the Congo Basin’s biodiversity and natural resources. Since 1995, the program has invested millions of dollars in protecting the massive forest sometimes called Earth’s “second lung” while providing local people with economic alternatives to overexploiting it. 

CARPE is implemented in collaboration with African Parks, African Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Maryland, the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund and other partners. Learn more

Video clips at top of page: women singing and dancing in Iyembe Monene, DRC; ducks in Ntondo, DRC; beekeepers in Luhonga, DRC; man sewing a fishing net in Bomassa, Republic of Congo; pigs in Miti, DRC; woman peeling cassava in Iyembe Monene. Video credits: Molly Bergen

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