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- Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is renowned for its biodiversity. The area is also home to the Batwa people, who are highly dependent on its forests for their livelihoods and cultural traditions.
- Efforts to protect these forests are challenged by conservation’s mixed record: Kahuzi-Biega’s expansion in the 1970s forced the displacement of thousands of local people, turning them into conservation refugees and sowing distrust in conservation initiatives.
- One of the local organizations leading efforts to overcome these challenges is Strong Roots Congo, which was co-founded by Dominique Bikaba in 2009. Strong Roots Congo puts the needs of local people at the center of its strategy to protect endangered forests and wildlife in eastern DRC.
- “Strong Roots’ approach to conservation is bottom-up, collaborative, and inclusive,” Bikaba said during a recent conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is renowned for its biodiversity, including Grauer’s gorilla — an endemic subspecies — and around 350 bird species. The area is also home to the Batwa people, who are highly dependent on its forests for their livelihoods and cultural traditions.
But forests in this region are embattled by long-running civil strife, poverty, and market demand for materials from minerals to charcoal. Efforts to protect these forests are challenged by conservation’s mixed record: Kahuzi-Biega’s expansion in the 1970s forced the displacement of thousands of local people, turning them into conservation refugees and sowing distrust in conservation initiatives, especially those led by “outsiders”, whether the central government or foreign NGOs. Mining companies and other extractive industries further complicate the situation by exacerbating pressure on community forests.
One of the local organizations leading efforts to overcome these challenges is Strong Roots Congo, which was co-founded by Dominique Bikaba in 2009. Strong Roots Congo puts the needs of local people at the center of its strategy to protect endangered forests and wildlife in eastern DRC. These efforts include helping local communities and Indigenous peoples secure collective land tenure, restoring native vegetation to create a habitat corridor, and supporting education and the strengthening of sustainable livelihoods at the village level.
“Strong Roots’ approach to conservation is bottom-up, collaborative, and inclusive,” Bikaba told Mongabay in a recent interview. “We learned long ago that conservation efforts are not sustainable without the cooperation and engagement of the local communities who live in the areas in which conservation projects are taking place. In some cases, ecosystem conservation and community sustainable development can seem at odds with each other, but we have found that both can often go hand in hand.”
Bikaba’s perspective on how to engage local stakeholders in driving outcomes that benefit both communities and the environment is rooted in his personal experience: His community was expelled from their lands for Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the 1970s. But he maintained a connection to the forest through his grandmother and as he grew older, he began working in park management and learning about Grauer’s gorilla. He also saw firsthand the impact of gorilla tourism in terms of generating local livelihoods, but also the costs from human-wildlife conflict in the form of crop losses. Additionally, he was keenly aware of the conflict between top-down conservation initiatives and local people.
“The vision was to overcome the conflict between park management and local communities by creating training opportunities for community members, working on community development for food security and education, and promoting livelihood activities to reduce the rampant poverty within communities surrounding the park,” he said. “Strong Roots is helping community members secure their traditional forestlands for conservation. The collective land tenure they are securing enables them to conserve the rich biodiversity on their traditional lands while improving their livelihoods and perpetuating their cultural identities and rituals across generations.”
Bikaba spoke about the context of conservation in eastern DRC during a conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What originally inspired your interest in conservation and natural resources management?
My biggest and original inspiration was associated with being born within the forest which is Kahuzi-Biega National Park today, and growing up almost living with the forest wildlife. Despite the fact that the creation of the park has excluded my family and my community from our traditional lands in the park – because they were expelled from the forest when it became a national park in 1970s – growing up in the vicinity of this forest and experiencing the impacts of wildlife on the crops on our farms, nourished my conservation ambitions and the love to wildlife and wildness. From a very young age, I spent several hours a day with my grandmother in the forest, leaning from her about forest and types of wildlife threats to humans. This was inspiring.
I was only twenty years old when I co-founded our first conservation organization with the goal of resolving conflicts between the park management and surrounding communities, including our families. As I grew up and learning more about gorillas – their social life, being giant and charismatic, seeing how many tourists they drew to our region and later, their role along with other species on forest restoration, and that they are an endemic sub-species for our region – I started mobilizing efforts for their protection. The vision was to overcome the conflict between park management and local communities by creating training opportunities for community members, working on community development for food security and education, and promoting livelihood activities to reduce the rampant poverty within communities surrounding the park.
How did you decide to start Strong Roots?
I worked for my previous organization based at Kahuzi-Biega National Park until 2010.
I had already created Strong Roots Congo in 2009 as I was keen to extend the area of our conservation projects from the park to other gorilla population habitats, especially on non-protected forests, like community forests, to learn how communities have managed gorilla populations on their traditional lands along with their traditional knowledge on biodiversity conservation. I was also interested in bringing research into local conservation programs.
Strong Roots is helping community members secure their traditional forestlands for conservation. The collective land tenure they are securing enables them to conserve the rich biodiversity on their traditional lands while improving their livelihoods and perpetuating their cultural identities and rituals across generations.
How would you summarize Strong Roots’ approach to conservation?
Strong Roots’ approach to conservation is bottom-up, collaborative, and inclusive. With our highly skilled team of local experts, we work to engage communities and conduct scientific research. We learned long ago that conservation efforts are not sustainable without the cooperation and engagement of the local communities who live in the areas in which conservation projects are taking place. In some cases, ecosystem conservation and community sustainable development can seem at odds with each other, but we have found that both can often go hand in hand.
Our work respects and incorporates both scientific and traditional knowledge and tools into planning and decision making. A recent example of this is our habitat-connectivity corridor project that is enhancing the connectivity of two protected areas (Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve) in South Kivu, DRC to conserve the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and their habitats. Through this project we are working with several chiefdoms across a non-protected area of roughly 3500 Km² to establish community forests, plant trees with indigenous species to reforest ecosystems, and develop sustainable livelihood activities.
A major element of this corridor project involves securing collective land tenure for the local communities and Indigenous peoples who are located with the boundaries and developing the corridor. This allows them to actively participate in and conduct landscape conservation and be a part of the process to regenerate the forests of this landscape where needed as about 67% of this corridor forest still is intact. It also allows them to protect themselves from the risk of foreign extractive industries making claims to the land upon which they reside.
As part of the land tenure process, we work with local communities to conduct biodiversity surveys and participatory land-use mapping. Participatory mapping allows us to collect important insights from all levels of the local communities so that we can ensure that our approach to conservation planning and management is as inclusive and collaborative as possible. Only through participatory mapping exercises can we accurately identify the boundaries of areas of traditional importance, such as sacred areas. There are several sites across the entire corridor that are regarded as sacred and are therefore used by the communities for traditional rituals and ceremonies. These places are important to protect and help maintain the buy-in and cooperation of local communities and Indigenous peoples.
Conservation in DRC involves many stakeholders, so our collaborative approach to conservation ensures that we can keep our conservation objectives in front of us. We put the communities and wildlife first based on their long-term coexistence in the region and recognize the mutual benefits that result from caring for both. Without effective collaboration with all stakeholders involved, conflicts and tensions can arise which might further delay progress or even have detrimental impacts on overall conservation goals.
For example, if communities are not properly empowered and consulted to take the lead on conservation initiatives in their region which inhibit them from using forest resources that they have always relied on, and no reasonable alternative livelihood is provided, they may take it upon themselves to continue illegally using forest resources or destroy forest resources despite the conservation policy, like can be the case in the government-managed protected areas. This scenario is a lose-lose situation for everyone. Through our approach, we work with the DRC government, local populations, traditional authorities, and other conservation agencies to ensure ownership of the initiatives by the communities.
Eastern DRC seems like it would be a very difficult place to work. In general, what are the biggest challenges to conversation in the areas where you work?
There are several major challenges that make conservation difficult in the region where our projects are based. The first is poverty and the limited economic opportunities for the communities surrounding our project locations. One of our recent studies found that 58% of households in the project area live in poverty. Local livelihood activities are heavily dependent on forest resources. Sustenance and income primarily come from agriculture activities and animal husbandry, practiced by 96% and 79% of households, respectively, as well as timber harvesting, hunting, and artisanal mining. For many people in the region, these livelihood activities are the only viable option for supporting themselves and their families.
The heavy reliance of these activities can lead to adverse ecological impacts if not managed properly. Land clearing for agriculture and the harvest of timber for charcoal are major drivers of deforestation in the region. Of particular concern to great apes is illegal mining, poaching, and wildlife trafficking.
Illegal mining is a complex challenge and is often a conduit for poachers to access remote forest areas. This region in eastern DRC is rich in minerals, which is attractive to both small-scale, illegal artisanal mining and large extractive companies. This is why our work with local communities in the corridor is so important. If sustainable livelihood activities are not developed, the area will face increasing anthropogenic pressures and ecological degradation due to the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources.
Regional conflict also adds another layer of complexity, though it is not as prevalent in the region in which our projects are based. However, it still presents an additional risk and can hinder progress on our work with local communities. Recently, when conducting socio-economic surveys in the far western region of the corridor, our survey team was unable to visit certain villages because of reports of conflict. We therefore had to adjust our survey plans and visit that region at a safer time. Generally, things are quite peaceful within the corridor communities and local people are quite supportive and welcoming of our work. We hope that this corridor project can continue to bring stability through improving livelihoods and bringing ecological resilience to the region, but conflict remains a dark cloud on the horizon and sometimes it rains.
On top of everything described above, climate change has emerged in the past several years as an increasingly prominent challenge for our work in the region. Climate change is a risk multiplier and threatens to further exacerbate the impacts of the various challenges (e.g. food insecurity, ecosystem degradation) we are facing in the region. Recently, communities throughout the corridor area have observed changes in the timing of the rainy season, which is arriving later and is not as reliable as it used to be. This has had adverse impacts on crop yields and quality, which in turn negatively impacts local income, increases food insecurity, and drives demand for more land to increase crop production. In certain times of the year, water scarcity and drought are becoming more common. Now communities have to adjust the agricultural practices to maintain their livelihoods, like changing the timing of crop planting. This is something we are supporting them with and will require more research.
And what are the biggest challenges to running the organization?
Running an organization has its own issues as you are in Africa or in the West but running a conservation organization in Africa has its specific challenges.
The first biggest challenge is associated with the concept “conservation” itself. Conservation is understood as something which was brought by colonialism. For this reason, it doesn’t square with communities’ deep intensions and ownership. Thus, securing communities’ engagement is a critical first step. And this will be secured if conservation initiatives are endogenous.
Financial resources are important but are not sufficient to secure conservation program success. They are useful when they are used as a tool to implement the program. They can constitute an impediment of the program when accessing funds are the main goal of the conservation program’s organization. Several organizations self-assess to be in a good position when they have run a successful fundraising event, rather than when they have helped a community or a region to secure a number of hectares of forest or biodiversity area. Using money raised as the primary measure of success is the wrong metric. The amount of money raised, in and of itself, is not a successful conservation outcome. It is a challenge when you are working in a region with such organizations. They act like “conservation mercenaries”.
Sometimes, finding skilled and trained staff to implement new conservation approaches that are consistent with, and embrace community traditional knowledge, can be a challenge in areas where communities do not have access to good education, science, and new technologies.
In addition to poor collaboration from the government due to weak governance systems and lack of resources, some countries make it hard for investors and donors to support local initiatives. Even though language is not the biggest barrier, the lack of the DRC being officially bilingual (both French and English) and formally in educational systems reduces opportunities for the country to secure conservation funds and scholarships for conservation leaders.
You’ve mentioned insecure land tenure as a problem for forest communities. How can this issue be addressed?
Land tenure is a problem for many forest communities because many people live and rely on lands that they do not formally own (according to the written law). Many of these communities, particularly the Indigenous communities, have been displaced from forest lands in order to make way for protected areas, such as national parks, or to extractive concessions granted to companies. These people have been forced out of the forests and environments on which their traditions were based and around which their livelihoods revolved. Without land tenure, the land on which these communities are based is not officially recognized in the eyes of the law, putting them at risk of further displacement from concessions awarded to foreign mining companies in the mineral rich-region. It also puts communities at risk of ecological degradation as common lands are often more difficult to manage in a sustainable way. The only way to address this problem and the uncertainty that insecure land tenure poses to forest communities is to officially secure land tenure under the law.
Securing land tenure is vital for many of the communities living in the region between Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve. With such a heavy reliance on the land for their livelihoods, land tenure can help ensure future ecological and economic sustainability. The goal of securing collective land tenure for these communities is one of the primary objectives of the corridor conservation that we are working with communities to establish between both protected areas. Through establishing community-managed forests, we can secure land tenure for communities while developing community-led conservation management plans and governance structures to ensure ecological restoration in the landscape.
It may sound too good to be true, but these communities (7 Chiefdoms) approached us with the idea and requested support for this initiative. For them, ecological sustainability is important for their livelihoods, traditions, and overall well-being. These community forests’ management and governance regimes source their legal basis from the 2014 DRC Community Forestry Law. Strong Roots has been instrumental in getting this “Community Forestry” Law passed in DRC. The designation of community forest will grant the communities the right to govern and manage their traditional lands, utilizing their immense knowledge of the natural resources within the landscape for conservation purposes.
Top-down conservation efforts have at times been in conflict with local communities in the Congo Basin. What do you see as the solution for this?
The Congolese government planned to extend the size of its protected areas network to cover 17% of the national territory by 2020. Strong Roots believes that the expansion of the top-down regime that dominates conservation in DRC jeopardizes the preservation of the fragile and rich ecosystems that it seeks to protect. Given the hostility of communities to government-managed protected areas in DRC (due to the expulsion of these communities when these protected areas were created), the most feasible manner to expand areas under conservation is the “community forestry” approach for conserved areas by local communities and Indigenous peoples. This is being promoted by Strong Roots with support from the ICCA Consortium and the IUCN in the Kahuzi – Itombwe Landscape.
The community forestry approach is very much bottom-up and consists of collaborative engagement with local communities. This approach is at the core of our corridor conservation project as described briefly above. The project tests the implementation of the DRC government’s Community Forest legislation as designed in 2014, which contributes to strengthening security of traditional land tenure and stands in stark contrast to the top-down approach. The approach tackles deforestation and maintains biodiversity, while also improving local human welfare and alleviating poverty. It will also provide additional habitat for the critically endangered and endemic eastern lowland gorilla, chimpanzees, and other species across the landscape.
Top-down conservation can be effective in some locations and in certain situations, however, as we have seen in DRC, if done heavy-handedly, the approach can erode trust with the local communities upon which conservation success depends. Part of the solution to addressing the conflict with local communities and top-down conservation is community engagement and collaboration between all stakeholders. This has been a core element of our approach: We have made great efforts to ensure that we engage, listen to, and share information with all levels of the community. This often starts with local community leaders and works its way across the community to other groups that may not feel that they always have representation in decision-making, such as women, children, and Indigenous peoples. We explain the big picture of the importance of conservation, restoration, and sustainability. In regions where tensions are high with government conservation agencies, we work to build bridges and ensure community voices are heard and respected.
A combination of high profile controversies in conservation in recent years and the global outcry following George Floyd’s killing last year has put a spotlight on discrimination, colonial legacy, inequity, and lack of inclusivity in the conservation sector. Are you seeing any effect of this greater awareness on your work?
Although Strong Roots has several global partners, the direction and full management of the projects is Congolese. Furthermore, the philosophy is one of inclusion and projects and priorities come from the stated needs of the people.
The local forest people of the region including the Batwa Indigenous peoples are central in all projects but provide guidance of how best to balance human life and needs with those of the forest and wildlife. The DRC is populated with a number of international organizations which brings in different staff of different background and cultures. None of Strong Roots staff or partner on the ground has ever been victim of such discrimination.
When you engage with local communities that may have been negatively impacted by conservation, what messages and arguments do you make as to why they should get involved?
Communities are aware of the rich biodiversity and minerals contained on their traditional lands. They are also aware that the government could establish protected areas there or extractive companies could seize these areas for extractive activities. Thus, local communities first approached Strong Roots for help with conservation planning and management of these forest lands. They saw environmental conservation and sustainability as crucial to their long-term well-being and as a way to reconnect with traditional practices that were already nature-centric.
For example, after the killing of about 50 gorillas in the Cirere Sector during the creation of Itombwe Nature Reserve, the traditional ruler of the Burhinyi Chiefdom passed a declaration that no great apes would be hunted or accidentally killed in any of the forests of the chiefdom. After this ban was made in 2010, there have been no further reports or evidence of great ape hunting in the region. This situation also highlights how much power a customary ruler can have over a community – more than a written law on a paper without enforcement.
Some of these communities, particularly those close to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, had been negatively impacted by previous conservation efforts. The establishment of the park in the 1970s saw the displacement of many Indigenous populations that once relied on the forests for food, home, and resources. We work very closely with these communities to secure land outside the park for agriculture and establish alternative livelihood activities that allow them to respect their traditions and learn new skills. We have conducted a lot of engagement work with communities across the corridor project area to highlight the interconnectivity of wildlife and forest health, such as the seed dispersal services that species like elephants and gorillas provide. We speak with people about the issues that deforestation causes and how that both directly and indirectly impacts them and their families.
They engage more when they realize that the conservation initiatives lie with their cultural and traditional customs and their way of life. We do not believe that communities are enemies of conservation; they are elements of nature.
In places like Uganda’s Bwindi and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the argument is often made that tourist revenue benefits local communities through employment opportunities. But tourism has been more difficult in DRC due to conflict, so does this argument apply? Do the benefits of tourism, when it’s possible, reach local communities?
As pointed out correctly, tourism has its challenges in DRC. This is largely due to a combination of both real and perceived issues of insecurity and tourism infrastructure. For some countries’ travel guidance, visiting eastern DRC is strongly discouraged for safety concerns.
For those that do venture into South Kivu for example, the main tourist attraction is Kahuzi-Biega National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to some of the world’s remaining Grauer’s gorillas. When tourists visit the park, the money from park and gorilla-trek goes directly to the park’s management, despite the 40% of these fees that are meant by law to support community’s local development. This applied when tourism was still in vogue before the mid-1990s when political unrest and successive wars erupted in the country.
Cost of tourist travel, accommodation, and restaurants supported local industries. In this way, the benefits flow directly to the people and communities at the front lines of conservation. Current tourists mainly consist of people working in the region from local NGOs or other travelers from other parts of DRC. Though not as common or accessible as places like Bwindi in Uganda or Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, once in eastern DRC, the dollars from tourism are a benefit to local communities and something that many local communities are looking to develop further.
What has been the impact of the pandemic on you and your work?
The covid-19 has come to exacerbate the fragile situation that was already deteriorated from political unrest and rampant poverty in local communities. The negative impact of covid-19 is not only on health situation of people, but also and mostly on the destruction of social and economic structures. Most of the people live on a day-by-day basis and do not have the ability to plan financially and food for long periods. Lockdowns without the required health equipment and infrastructure makes it hard to identify what really comes from covid-19 and what comes from other sicknesses. However, coming back from ebola outbreak about one year before covid-19 predisposed people to tackle this pandemic. I guess this might have been the main reason why community members have been about to navigate the pandemic in eastern DRC.
What can international conservation organizations and funders do better to support grassroots leaders like Strong Roots?
Something that conservation organizations and funders can do better to support grassroots leaders like Strong Roots is to develop collaborative relationships with their partners on the ground and keep the overall project goals in mind. This may sound simple, but having worked for many years with different international conservation agencies, we have seen how often international conservation organizations and funders can get in the way of the overall project success. In some cases, agencies will compete with each other for project credit and recognition and don’t collaborate well with other partners. As a consequence, communities, wildlife, and ecosystems can suffer all for the sake of optics. International organizations should avoid competitiveness with grassroots organizations for funding and implementing small projects in communities.
Collaborating effectively and directly with grassroots leaders on projects implementation can have really positive consequences for conservation. We’ve recently established partnerships with different international organizations that are committed to working together for the overall success of the project. There has been two-way dialogue on project progress and reporting structures which really makes a big difference for implementing the conservation project in a meaningful way. Each partner has their own particular focus, but they are informed on the overall project scope and remain committed to its success. This allows us to spend most of our time on actually implementing the project and makes reporting more streamlined and informative for all parties involved.
How can people support your work?
Spreading the right information and examples of success stories from the region would be a great start.
Direct support to grassroots organizations within the country can make a big difference for conservation in DRC.
Also, ensuring good partnerships and connections with innovative partners and organizations that share our common interest would be a strategic form of support.
Education is key! Providing education and training to our staff and community members would greatly support our work.
I am grateful to the IUCN-NL, the International Conservation Fund of Canada, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Good Energies, Erol and Mulago Foundations, and The Tenure Facility for joining the Canadian Ape Alliance at Toronto University and Partners In Conservation at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium to support these programs in eastern DRC.
Correction: the original version of this piece stated that 13,000 were forcibly displaced during the expansion of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the 1970s. Due to uncertainty over that figure, the introduction was updated at 18:00 Pacific time to replace “13,000” with “thousands”.
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