Promoting Forest Landscape Restoration for Bioenergy Production in the Congo
Hectares in the process of restoration so far
Measures used in this project
A complicated backdrop: Introducing the Yangambi Landscape
Forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) cover over 100 million hectares. Not only are they home to thousands of plant and animal species, but they also help to regulate continental scale water cycles as well as contribute to biodiversity conservation, carbon storage and the mitigation of the effects of climate change. There are also approximately 40 million people living in or near these forests. Despite the wealth of natural resources around them, these people are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable, globally.
The Yangambi landscape, an 800,000-hectare area and the focus of this case study, is located in the Tshopo province in the heart of the Congo Basin, northeast DRC. As is common in the Congo Basin, the Yangambi landscape is characterised by a range of different land tenures combining the Yangambi Man and Biosphere Reserve (YBR), a UNESCO reserve comprising of approximately 235,000 hectares that was created in 1979; the Ngazi Forest Reserve (NFR), which belongs to the Congolese Institute for Agronomic Research (INERA); several logging concessions; as well as customary land, small towns and villages. Owing to the lack of human and financial resources, both forest reserves within the landscape (YBR and Ngazi), and according to CIFOR, have no official management plan, their limits are contested and they are not under any specific form of management.
Yangambi’s local economy has declined in the last decades. Nowadays, most households rely on the exploitation of natural resources for their livelihoods, including logging, shifting cultivation, wild meat hunting, and fishing. This increasing demand for food, shelter, energy and income, coupled with an increasing local population is contributing significantly to deforestation and forest degradation which is putting enormous pressure on the surrounding forests including the aforementioned reserves within the Yangambi Landscape. The future of these forests, therefore, will heavily depend on effective strategies and pathways that balance poverty alleviate with natural resource management.
An electrifying response: A bioenergy solution
To tackle the issues outlined, in 2017, CIFOR received funding from the European Union to promote the sustainable development of the Yangambi landscape. Since there was no electricity in Yangambi, investing in forest restoration for bioenergy production was one of the obvious choices for CIFOR. The potential of revitalising the degraded land and repurposing the existing infrastructure to use was a convincing combination for the European Union.
In 2018, the FORETS (Formation, Développement et Recherche dans la Tshopo) project was born: a project which is centred around creating tree plantations in the previously deforested land within the Yangambi landscape. Once the project has reached full implementation stage (it is hoped that electricity generation should start towards the end of 2021), the intention would be that the plantations would serve two purposes:
- Biomass (trees) will be used to generate electricity, heat and cold in old industrial sites that will be repurposed, and to supply electricity to the neighbouring communities, creating new business opportunities and providing much needed jobs for local people, and;
- Remaining biomass will be made accessible to the local community to produce wood fuel, helping to reduce pressure on the local forest reserve. The plantations will therefore integrate agroforestry systems, meaning that families are cultivating their crops between lines of trees, to restore soil fertility.
The two major objectives of the project’s intervention, therefore, are to 1) maintain as much as possible of the area’s rich biodiversity and 2) find a way to develop local entrepreneurship and value chains that allow the locals to improve their livelihoods. Working closely with INERA, the plan is to reach 3000 families initially, and scale up to 10,000 families once additional funding has been secured. While building the biomass plant and repurposing the original infrastructure on the site, the intention is to plant about six thousand hectares of land which, according to Paolo Cerutti, CIFOR’s senior scientist and project coordinator, “can be used on a rotational basis which would be enough to feed the initial power plant”.
One part of FORETS has already restored around 520 hectares of land. It is expected that by the end of the project in 2021, 1.5 million trees will have been planted, including both indigenous and non-indigenous species.
The inspiration behind the project
Up until 1960, the Yangambi landscape housed one of the most important tropical agricultural and forestry research stations on the planet where several hundred international scientists and local technicians would conduct their research. Typically, their research focused on the surrounding rubber, oil palm, banana, and coffee plantations, which were used for plant breeding and technical innovations.
However, following decades of political instability and civil conflict, the research station fell into disarray, despite efforts by the Congolese State to keep the centre running. Most of the research station’s infrastructure is now worn down, the once-productive plantations have aged without major renewals or management, and experimental fields are either abandoned and degraded or used by the local population for agriculture. According to Mr Cerutti:
The only current power energy source is charcoal. If we want to develop anything here, you at least need some alternative energy source. So what do you do? How do you do this? Here we have one of the largest rivers on the planet, but you can't build a dam simply because there is not enough slope. And so we had experts coming from various fields. And in the end, we identified the best option was to generate electricity by using biomass. And then little by little, we are also including solar.
Given the lack of energy alternatives, and the extensive availability of degraded land, CIFOR and partners then decided that the Yangambi landscape was the perfect setting not only for plantations to enrich the soil and increase the existing biomass, but also to recreate a scientific hub.
Large-scale restoration is an ambitious endeavour that requires trial and error, and a lot of learning, not only when it comes to understanding and navigating local conditions but also when it comes to the specific project activities. Local capacities for management, leadership as well as inter- and intra-institutional communication are growing but still weak, which creates major challenges to project implementation that go hand-in-hand with the generalised post-conflict environment present in the country.
When it comes to obstacles related to the planting activities, one of the biggest challenges has been establishing and maintaining good communications with the local community. While the land belongs to INERA, sometimes settlers have de facto claims and want to ensure that they benefit from the plantations. The limited livelihood opportunities in the area mean that locals are willing to contribute to the intervention’s targets when they see incentives in doing so.
This is why the project team has set up specific tasks to listen to the community’s concerns, negotiate solutions, and prevent conflicts which may escalate and disrupt activities. According to Mr Cerutti, the project “has a team on the ground that presents the project’s objectives and discusses potential implications with every single family and every single owner” – this helps ensures local buy-in, which is absolutely essential. The team also runs agricultural and agroforestry schemes to share learnings with the local communities in such techniques which are key for project success.
Two other major issues are timing and logistics, particularly as seedlings cannot be planted all year round. Maintaining a steady supply of seedlings is therefore key so that they can be ready when the planting season starts. As Mr Cerutti commented:
We are still talking about a place where basically in the rainy season it’s very difficult to go around with a car or a motorbike. So with the help of INERA and its staff we started building our own carriers, our own places where you would deliver in order to have smoother and faster operations, because once you have the season, you have to do it within the season. If you are outside of the season then you need to wait until the next season. So everything must be very, very well timed.
A final consideration is that restoration also generates waste. For example, seedlings grow in plastic bags that must be disposed of after replanting, and without a recycling system in place, the only option is to burn them. The on-the ground team are aware of this problem and are looking for cleaner alternatives such as biodegradable bags.
Impacts so far
Increased community ownership
Now that planting has started, the team on the ground is ensuring that the community takes joint ownership in the land management and start to collaborate towards the same outcome: creating enough biomass for electricity. According to Mr Cerutti: “local people are now starting to understand better the objectives of the project and what’s in for them too”.
This increased community ownership has also been boosted by the project’s environmental education programme that is being implemented across schools, churches and associations in the area. “We have already targeted more than 30,000 school children, church members, because you need these recurrent discussions if you want to reach the people, because otherwise the risk is to remain an externally-driven intervention with no local ownership”.
Enhanced scale up efficiency
During the peak period, FORETS’ team can now plant up to 10,000 trees per day, but arriving at this level of efficiency has not always been easy. In the beginning, the project struggled with the lack of a qualified workforce. While in previous times, locals had experience in industrial plantations, the present generation was not skilled for most of the required jobs. As a result, a lot of time was invested in training 14 team leaders who, in turn, have passed their skills to others. According to Mr Cerutti:
Now everything is in place unless there is a major catastrophic event. I think that that's already a very good impact because we moved from a situation that was vary chaotic to a situation where we discuss and negotiate a coherent set of operations on the ground (…) thanks to the team, INERA and the willingness of the local population we are now working together towards common targets.
To scale up even further, the intention is to start developing incubators by selecting local entrepreneurs who are already working innovatively at the local level and setting up – among others - microfinance schemes to assist them. Furthermore, CIFOR intends to set up a public private partnership with national and local institutions as well as interested individuals, banks and the private sector as another way of running the biomass business, which will help to consolidate the project’s partnership with INERA.
Reactivating the local economy
The plantations and the work being done on local value chains are proving to be fast in reactivating the local economy and increasing employment. More than 400 people have already been directly employed in the plantation alone – from gathering seeds and watering and planting seedlings to protecting the trees from fire, and this figure is expected to increase once energy production starts. According to Mr Cerutti:
There used to be just two stalls at the Sunday market located on the outskirts of the Yangambi reserve. Now, if you go today you could see at least 30 to 40 stalls. And instead of people going and selling to other markets, you have many pirogues (a small dugout boat) coming from across the Congo River to Yangambi to buy and trade the products that people are producing. The local economy is picking up. People are starting to buy and sell much more than before.
However, Mr Cerutti did point out a potential problem with reactivating the local economy in that the more the economy grows, the more people may be drawn to the area, the more people there are that potentially could enter into the Biosphere reserve to gather natural resources. That is why a lot of efforts are spent towards creating an environment whereby the improvement of livelihoods comes with increased awareness – especially with the ongoing environmental educational activities provided by the project’s team - and that instead of investing in tools which further degrade the environment, the local community will invest in activities and tools which will largely have positive impacts on the environment.
Will there be a brighter future for the Yangambi Landscape?
Restoration is a long-term process, and in this case, it will take at least seven to eight years before the planted trees can be harvested for energy production. When asked about the future, Mr Cerutti said:
INERA’s capacities are growing and the local population is little by little understanding the project and increasing their contribution to it. I mean, you see such innovation and such willingness to do new things especially from women and from youth, that you can only think that the future must be bright.
As part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), the DRC has pledged to restore eight million hectares of degraded land by 2030. Therefore, supporting and learning from ambitious initiatives, like this one, will be crucial to help achieve the country’s targets.
Photos featured this case study fall under the Creative Commons licence 2.0
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Paolo Cerutti is a forester working on sustainable forest management of tropical production forests, forest certification, timber and wood energy value chains and timber trade. Since 2017, he has been coordinating CIFOR’s (Center for International Forestry Research) projects in the Yangambi landscape in the Congo.