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From the forest: New rights to forests give communities hope for the future

31 May 2018

RFUK's Claire Parfondry (right) and GASHE's Ruth Badubaye (left) meet with local communities in February | Credit: GASHE

Claire Parfondry coordinates the Rainforest Foundation UK’s Community Forests project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She recently travelled to six local communities participating in the project in western DRC.

It’s been nearly one year since the launch of our Community Forests project in DRC, and the local communities we work with are already well on their way to securing their forests.

We often describe these communities as ‘remote’, but you don’t truly appreciate just how remote until you see them. Travelling from the western city of Mbandaka in Equateur province, the journey to one community we’re working with, Mibenga, consists of a 5-hour boat ride followed by another 3-hour motorbike ride. It had been raining, but luckily for us the road was still useable. When we finally arrived, the people of Mibenga gave us a warm welcome.

Dembele Alexi is the local leader here. He explained why his village decided to participate in our project: “For a long time, we’ve seen loggers come here. It was not good. We only knew that the State had sold the forest, and the loggers kept coming… Then you [RFUK and local partner GASHE] came to support us in obtaining our community forest. Our hope is that we reach the end of this process so that the forest belongs to us and we can manage it how we wish…”

Dembele Alexi | Credit: GASHE

Our project team has been helping Mibenga and several other communities apply to for officially-recognised ‘community forest concessions’. This has involved a lot of hard work and commitment by the villages involved, who want to protect their forests from outside threats.

“If a logging company comes to our community, we will show them our concession document and we will ask them to leave,” says Sabine of Ilebo community in Mpama.

Right now is a crucial time for the project. With help from our local partners GASHE (Group d’Action pour Sauver l’Homme et son Environnement), all the communities we work with have recently submitted their Community Forest applications to the government. The anticipation and excitement is palpable.

Robert Corneille Nkamba Itinga Bongo, a traditional leader based in Irebu village, had many ideas for how the community could manage its forest: “There are lots of hippos on our land. I hope that community forestry will help us better protect them. Perhaps we could start doing eco-tourism, or invite scientists to come and study them.”

A map of the six local communities RFUK is working with in Equateur province, DRC.

While awaiting their official documents, some communities have already started planning for the future. For example, a few months ago the road connecting the village of Ilinga to the nearest city (and market) was so bad that one could barely call it a road. A few weeks prior to our visit, the community came together and worked out a plan to improve the road. “We want to encourage people to come and visit our community, now that we have decided to engage in this project. We wanted to be able to welcome them, so we got organised to fix our road,” one local leader explained to me.

The optimism of these community members is not lost on DRC’s government agency responsible for monitoring community forests. A delegation of government representatives joined our team to get a better idea of the project’s approach. At the end of the field mission, the delegation offered an encouraging assessment of what they saw: “This mission allowed the administration to better understand what has been done in the field… These pilot sites could be labelled as exemplary… This innovative approach should be replicated elsewhere.”

With community forest applications now submitted to the government, communities are eagerly waiting to receive official documents affirming their land rights. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of work to do as communities start planning for what they hope is a more stable and sustainable future.

For more information on our Community Forests project, click here.

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