Community forests: from theory to practice

Community forest consultations in DRC

Photo: Local partners GASHE meet with pilot communities in DRC | Credit: GASHE

What does a community-managed forest look like in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? That is precisely the question that the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) and our partners are currently working to answer through our Community Forests (CF) project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID).

In February 2016, the DRC government passed landmark community forest legislation, creating an enormous opportunity for local communities and indigenous forest dwellers to take control of their lands and, in doing so, manage their own forests sustainably. Seizing this unique opportunity, RFUK and our Congolese partners are now working with local communities in Equateur Province in western DRC to pilot community forestry on the ground.

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After an initial scoping mission that looked at 40 potential pilot sites in western DRC, we have now identified six unique pilot sites across the province – with additional sites to be selected later this year. While RFUK and our partners are supporting local people to develop their concessions, it’s the communities themselves who set their own priorities and shape their own future.

“What’s very important for us is that these community forest concessions must be developed by and for local and indigenous people – not imposed by outside forces,” said Blaise Mudodosi, Advocacy Officer with local partner Réseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN).

One of the most important aspects of these pilot sites is their diversity. They range from areas of 1,000 to 30,000 hectares (the upper limit being 50,000 hectares), from populations of 600 to 10,000 people, and from communities with a single ethnic group to those with several. Some differences will have a big impact on how each community forest will be developed. For instance, some communities border a national park or nature reserve, while others overlap with a commercial logging concession.

Photo: Transporting products to local markets is one of the many priorities raised by communities | Credit: GASHE

Photo: Transporting products to local markets is one of the many priorities raised by communities | Credit: GASHE

Each pilot site will have its own challenges and opportunities. For instance, many communities are unable to get their local products to market, suffer from poor local infrastructure, or simply cannot access financial credit to invest in their enterprises.  Other communities have expressed a desire to better organise themselves in order to harness new sources of environmentally-friendly income, such as cocoa production.

 These pilot sites are in forests that are extremely valuable, both ecologically and for the people who live there,” said Colin Robertson , DRC Coordinator at RFUK. “As DRC is home to the second largest rainforest in the world, community forests have a big potential to benefit these often marginalised forest dwellers.”

The diversity of these pilot sites adds a lot of complexity to the process of forming community forests, but it is also one of the greatest strengths of the CF project, allowing us to show that there is not one ‘right’ kind of community forest, but rather many.

The next stage of the CF project will be to work with participating communities to assess their different needs and develop a plan of action for taking control of their forests – and their futures.