A view from the Rainforest from Steven Humphreys
For me May has been busy in part of the Congo basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, and increasingly threatened by human encroachment. This is a conservation project aiming at offering alternative ways to earn a living for the local communities bordering the national park of Odzala-Kokoua, by supporting and improving their agricultural activities, so they are less likely to continue their traditional income generating activities involving illegal poaching of bushmeat, gold panning, and deforestation. This area hosts some of the world’s most endangered species, including the Western Lowland gorillas, Forest Elephants, Forest Buffalo, and many rare species of antelope such as Bongo and Sitatunga. There is really serious pressure on the local fauna, because of poaching and strong demand from the local people for bushmeat, just about everything is eaten.
It’s a big ask since we are talking about behaviour change, and change of use in their ancestral hunting grounds. Much of the work has involved trying to engage with the indigenous communities, the Ba’Aka and Bakola groups, previously known as pygmies, but now referred to as the Autochtons.
One of the potential solutions is to regenerate the existing cocoa plantations which were set up 50 years ago, which have now mostly been abandoned and have been reclaimed by the forest. This should not have too many adverse effects on damaging the ecosystem, as it will include mostly pruning and clearing of undergrowth. Cocoa is an interesting crop in that the pods grow directly from the trunk of the tree, and after harvesting there’s a fermentation and drying process that will determine the quality of the chocolate in the bean:
The Republic of Congo only supplies a fraction of the world’s cocoa, and much of it is exported via Douala in Cameroon, work is needed on improving traceability so buyers will know more about its origin, and consumers are increasingly demanding this.
There’s a fine balance to maintain between managing the existing forest cocoa, and clearing responsibly whilst replanting new hybrids, and maintaining sufficient indigenous forest trees that provides a nice high canopy allowing the right amount of shade and sunlight. The indigenous trees in the forest are amazing, easily reaching up to 50m high.
The other crop we were looking at was cassava, the main staple in the Republic of Congo, and if we can encourage local communities on the edges of the protected areas to improve husbandry, and therefore yields, this is going to up their incomes, and hopefully encourage them to desist looking for bushmeat to sell. There is also a lot to do on introducing some basic mechanisation, especially for processing, as this is done mostly by hand, and mostly by women. We’ll have to find low cost machinery for crushing the roots, to make both dough and starch, which rapidly add value to the product. At the same time we don’t want to take away employment from rural areas, so trying to introduce new technology hoping business in general will increase, and therefore employment
Whilst the logging companies are continuing to exploit their concessions, and these valuable tropical hardwoods are now mostly harvested sustainably, they open up new forest tracks continually and this gives easy access to the professional poachers. Our job is going to be to show that sustainably managed agriculture is the way forward for all these threatened areas, but there’s a long way to go still.
The Government has very limited resources to put in place the right control measures, so it relies on the international community through several donor funded conservation NGO’s to promote good practice.