MADIMBA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Congolese village of Madimba is struggling with the ravages of decades of rampant deforestation and the capital Kinshasa's insatiable appetite for cooking with charcoal.
It is not alone. As in many other villages across this huge central African country's Bas-Congo province, residents have to cope with a mix of climatic and environmental changes that threaten their traditional way of life.
“With Kinshasa's electricity supply problems, the village of Madimba is one of those places supplying (the city) with tonnes of charcoal every day,” said engineer Espérant Kivua. “As a result, there is now grassland (instead of forest), the caterpillars that are a staple food for the community are in short supply, farm yields are poor, and rain is lacking.”
Kivua, who graduated from Kinshasa University as an agronomist, works with Madimba and other communities in his home region to replace lost trees, and tackle the twin challenges of charcoal production and food security.
Tree-planting is at the heart of the campaign led by the Centre for Family Development (CEDEF) and the people of Madimba and other Bas-Congo villages, including Mbanza, Boma, Biti, Kingui, and Ntende 1 and 2.
The aim of the project - which is supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) - is to regenerate the forest through a mix of subsistence and commercial farming, and sustainable forestry.
The Congo Basin rainforest is the second-largest on earth, after the Amazon, and Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for two thirds of its surface area.
“As with all large forest areas, the Congo plays a vital role in regulating climate, both locally and globally,” said Irene Wabiwa, a forest campaigner for environmental group Greenpeace. “The impact of uncontrolled logging on climate change could be catastrophic.”
Madimba, in Bas-Congo's Lukaya district, is 120 km (80 miles) from Kinshasa. There, as elsewhere, competition to earn cash from charcoal production has sparked feuds over land and dwindling resources, turning neighbours against one another.
In response, community leaders in Madimba and five associated villages are offering families land to farm, and rallying people around the idea that they can build for the future by planting and protecting trees, rather than cutting them down and turning them into charcoal.
The traditional chiefs allocate villagers a hectare (just under 2.5 acres) of farmland, on condition they plant trees as well. They can eat or sell their produce, but must undertake to leave the trees standing.
Central to the initiative is the fact that villagers effectively own the land they work, in an area where land is usually communal or held in trust by traditional chiefs.
So far, only 6,000 of a projected 1 million trees have been planted, with the majority due to be planted during the rainy season. They include moringa, with leaves rich in vitamins, minerals and protein, and the fast-growing leucaena, whose leaves are used to feed animals. Other varieties include acacia, oil palm and the caterpillar tree.
“The traditional chief of Madimba gave his permission for land to be made available to people to practice agroforestry,” explained Kivua. “The household grows staple foods such as manioc, corn and groundnuts, and, at the same time, trees. When the produce is ready, the communities harvest it but let the trees grow.”
Smallholders can earn extra cash from activities such as bee-keeping.
FOOD AND FUEL
Jean Makumbundu, secretary of Mbanza Boma village committee and a younger brother of the traditional chief, said people there have turned to charcoal production as the only way to make money, but their methods are destroying the forest and the land they live off.
“Planting trees will enable them to restore the forest which, later on, they can cut and make money through such activities as charcoal production,” he said.
Among the benefits to the community, he lists the caterpillar tree. “The trees planted next to our houses produced lots of caterpillars last year, and our children didn't suffer from malnutrition,” he said.
The trees also act as a wind-break. “Before, our houses collapsed whenever there was heavy rain or high winds,” he added.
Julienne Malemuka, wife of the traditional chief of Mbanza Boma, owns several fields and likes the idea of helping the forest grow again, but worries that funding for the scheme may not match the community’s needs. She said the money is enough to cover breakfast – “coffee or tea with bread”, as she put it - but a huge amount of work remains.
In Kisinga, in Kisantu district, the cultural impact of deforestation is symbolised by the disappearance of the laurentii “black wood” tree, and the giant cane rat or grasscutter, a staple food for the community.
There, as in Madimba, grassland has replaced the forest that once sustained the community.
Local people responded by banding together in 2012. With financial help of $50,000 from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), they have set themselves a target of replanting 100 hectares (around 250 acres) of forest.
Villages, grouped in an organisation called Community Action for Socio-economic Development (ACDS), have committed to planting five hectares (just over 12 acres) each.
BRINGING BACK THE GRASSCUTTER
They also have plans to breed the grasscutter, a beaver-like animal weighing up to 10 kg (22 pounds) that was once a staple food in the area but has disappeared along with the trees.
“It's very difficult for us to tell our children to eat antelope because it's not something we know and the taste is very different from the grasscutter,” said ACDS member Elalie Mbaki.
The project has 43 grasscutters and plans to distribute at least a pair to each village, with training in how to rear them.
In Kisinga, Jean Evariste Zamba Loangu says the communities are also planting mango or rambutan trees to sell the fruits. “The project will help our local communities reduce poverty,” he said.
On the Kisinga community farm, organiser Fréderic Vita Kiyambula said its mission is sustainable animal and livestock rearing, which includes heading off disputes over grazing rights.
Charles Wasikama, point-person in Congo for the UNDP and the GEF, said the two international organisations are committed to promoting sustainable development and helping local communities adapt to the effects of climate change.
“It is an opportunity for (them) to develop their own projects in the areas of water, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, biodiversity and so on,” he said. “This will enable them to improve their living conditions, gain access to safe drinking water, protect trees and fight against poaching.”
Célestin Kabeya, coordinator of the UNDP/GEF projects, said provinces other than Bas-Congo and Equateur had also requested funding, but those two were selected as locations for pilot programmes. The two organisations plan to provide funding of $1.675 million over two years.
Nene Mainzana Mapoko is a Kinshasa-based journalist specialising in forest and environmental issues.