It is not easy to reach the Kahuzi-Beiga National Park (KBNP) and the people who live there.
The route from Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu Province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), traverses mountainous terrain along the southern edge of Lake Kivu which lies on the border with Rwanda.
The protected area is one of the biggest national parks in the country spanning 600 000 ha and is the planet’s last refuge for the rare and endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri).
For millennia, these forests have sustained the Congolese Pygmies, who are among Central Africa’s oldest Indigenous peoples, but the modern world is slowly collapsing in on them, eroding their culture.
Demand for the DRC’s natural resources and rapid population growth fuel an insatiable appetite for land, and these expansion-related challenges are exacerbated by political corruption, instability and armed conflict as different groups vie over control.
Forests are indiscriminately bulldozed to create industrial farms or to meet international demand for timber, and even the establishment of the KBNP in the 1970s was met with resentment as Pygmy communities argued it robbed them of ancestral lands.
This is the complicated backdrop against which the TRI DRC project is taking action, and it requires special care to safeguard these vulnerable peoples’ right to live in and use the KNBP’s forest resources while advancing urgently needed restoration.
Promoting attractive alternatives to protect wildlife and rare species
The TRI DRC project’s interventions for the DRC’s forest people are aimed at improving food security and providing income and socioeconomic empowerment through alternative options. This is pertinent as some of the activities that sustain the Congolese Pygmies’ traditional ways of life, such as the hunting and trade of meat from wild animals or bushmeat, and the collection of NTFPs, are seen as counter to conservation efforts and even criminalized.
Traditionally, African forest communities lived in symbiosis with a forest ecosystem and their nomadic lifestyle meant they rarely outstripped the resources within a temporarily settled area. However, as village demand for bushmeat grows and wild animal populations plummet, the long-term sustainability of these practices is being called into question.
To provide sustainable alternatives, in 2021, the TRI DRC project together with the Community Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) distributed rakes, hoes and watering cans as well as 25 g of amaranth, carrot, cabbage and onion seeds to 424 Indigenous Pygmies in the villages of Muyange, Buyungule, Makondo and Cibuga to be used for building vegetable gardens.
These gardens will diversify the food available to these communities for up to three months. The TRI DRC project also installed hives for honey-producing bees, promoted the planting of fruit trees and provided material support for raising and breeding rabbits, which provide an alternative supply of lean, game-like meat.
In addition to diversifying food sources, the TRI DRC project provided opportunities for the Congolese Pygmies to earn money and help mitigate a worrying socioeconomic disparity within the project areas. The daily income per person within the Pygmy communities sits around USD 0.12 compared to the average of USD 0.50 within the Congolese Bantu communities.
Using their expert knowledge and skills as the original stewards of these forest ecosystems, the Pygmy communities received payment for the collection and propagation of native tree seedlings from the forest to be grown across five newly established nursery sites.
Together with the TRI DRC project’s distribution of watering cans, wheelbarrows, hoes, rakes, spades, hammers, decametres and grow bags, the role of Pygmy communities is essential for the large-scale production of tree seedlings needed to advance restoration along water edges or riparian zones within the KBNP in 2022.
Complimenting these economic efforts are actions by the Dimitra Clubs, groups of women and men who meet and discuss collective actions to solve community problems. Ninety newly established clubs are developing microprojects to improve the income of the Congolese Pygmies in partnership with the TRI DRC project, including Louvain Coopération and others.
The TRI DRC project’s end target is to see at least 50 per cent of the project’s beneficiaries living above the poverty line, compared to 20 per cent at the start of the project.
Learning from and safeguarding Indigenous peoples’ rights and knowledge
Congolese Pygmies have long cultivated an intimate relationship with unparalleled insight into sustainable resource use and the ecosystems in which they live. Learning from them fosters the TRI DRC project’s aim of harmonizing local and Indigenous knowledge with robust conservation practice.
This inclusive approach to conservation sees that Indigenous peoples’ knowledge is reflected at all levels of restoration from identifying sites for tree plantings, determining which fruit tree varieties would thrive where, as well as the collection of seeds and other nutrient-rich materials needed to successfully propagate the region’s forest varieties.
Balancing restoration efforts while safeguarding the Congolese Pygmies’ cultural heritage in the existing projects area also requires revisiting land tenure issues and assumptions embedded within national institutions and established conservation frameworks. While the DRC took steps to legally guarantee the Pygmies’ rights to land and natural resources in 2021, communities still suffer severe social exclusion, discrimination, violence and increasing poverty.
This calls for the TRI DRC project’s constant collaboration with the Congolese Pygmies’ own governance systems and leadership to properly identify sites of cultural significance, ensuring the embedding of the Congolese Pygmies in the planning and execution of restoration interventions, and making swift corrections in response to grievances.
The TRI DRC project’s efforts recognize how inextricable the lives and well-being of the Congolese Pygmy communities are to achieving the goals of forest restoration. Although the path forward crosses a minefield of obstacles, this year’s progress reflects the promise of engagement with these tribal communities.
With the recognition of the essential role of the Congolese Pygmy communities in nurturing these forests – and through their socioeconomic empowerment – the TRI DRC is part of a new symbiosis that shines a light on Indigenous peoples’ rights and their ability to help save the country’s wondrous ecosystems.
Featured photo of South Kivu farmers courtesy of Benjamin De Ridder.
This article originally appeared on the IUCN website. Reprinted here by permission.