NAIROBI, Kenya—It’s one of the most spectacular places on Earth—a World Heritage site that hosts a trove of biodiversity including more than 2,000 plant species, and such iconic animal species as the mountain gorilla.
It is also a place facing dire threat.
Virunga National Park—790,000-hectares of jagged montane and lowland landscapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—is under severe pressure from illegal encroachment and exploitation of natural resources including oil and gas, aggravated by conflicts that have plagued the area for decades.
Not only is there a need to restore degraded lands and forests in the park, experts say, but there is also a need to ease pressure on the forests inside the park by focusing research and development efforts on agroforestry and other solutions that increase tree cover and diversity outside the park’s borders.
A project now under way seeks to do just that.
“Forests and Climate Change in the Congo” (FCCC), funded by the European Union’s Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA), and led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), works with a host of national and international partners to strengthen forestry research to protect the park.
One of those partners, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), is leading the agroforestry research and development component of the project in Masisi and Lubero territories near the park boundaries in North Kivu Province of eastern DRC.
“Our role in the project is to lead participatory research, particularly looking at local knowledge about trees and agroforestry practices and at what is driving changes in land use and land cover, both inside and outside Virunga National Park,” said ICRAF scientist Emilie Smith Dumont.
“We are conducting field research and working with our local partner, WWF,” she explained. “WWF have been promoting energy woodlots around the park to reduce the pressure on forests inside, caused by charcoal and firewood production. So we are working with them and their partners to help determine what agroforestry options we can design to diversify tree species on farms and improve the delivery of multiple ecosystem services.”
Collecting local knowledge on land use, ICRAF has documented clear — and worrying — trends in the area. These included reduction and fragmentation of arable lands, caused in part by the expansion of livestock grazing areas dominated by large landowners and often at the expense of natural reserves and perennial croplands. Reduced crop diversity was also noted, exacerbated by the expansion of monoculture eucalyptus plantations on arable lands that compete with crucial food crops, alongside a reduction in the cultivation of perennial cash crops such as tea, coffee and pyrethrum, among others. Researchers also noted poor integration of trees and livestock into farming systems as well as soil erosion and growing pest problems.
These trends, they found, are driven by complex factors such as increased population and migration, political and military conflicts, destruction of the social and economic fabric, and dependence on wood for energy and construction. These have severe consequences for the landscape, according to Smith Dumont, resulting in people having to exploit forest resources inside the national park to meet their subsistence needs.
The degradation of the landscape from loss of forest cover and diversity also increases local communities’ vulnerability to shocks and climate change and adversely affects water quality, while leading to declines in agricultural productivity and rising rates of food insecurity and poverty.
FINDING THE RIGHT TREES
But all is far from lost. The challenge for FCCC, its partners and the communities around Virunga Park, is to help reverse these negative trends, which they aim to do by drawing on local knowledge of trees and on evidence-based agroforestry practices—and combining these to identify a range of agroforestry options and appropriate tree species.
This is exactly what they did when project partners — environmental and farmer associations, scientists, extension staff and rural advisory staff — gathered recently for participatory workshops for each territory to validate the information on local knowledge and land-use change collected to date, and to map out constraints and then opportunities for surmounting them. The results of the workshops, Smith Dumont said, were remarkable.
“What really stood out from these workshops is that people really increased their understanding of agroforestry as offering diverse options and opportunities for tree-planting, more than just woodlots of monoculture and focusing on a few so-called agroforestry species of fast-growing shrubs,” she said. Rather, she explained, the participants expanded their perspective and thinking about tree cover and tree diversity on farms, and the wide range of needs and niches that could be filled by different types of trees.
“So you would look at using fruit trees on the homestead but at trees to improve erosion control on slopes, and also at natural regeneration,” she said.
Smith Dumont said the participants drew on their own extensive but often neglected knowledge and appreciation of indigenous trees, which can provide a wide range of products and services when integrated into agroforestry systems.
Another important outcome of the workshops facilitated by ICRAF is that participants recognized their distinct but complementary interests and livelihood goals in managing trees based on gender. Trees for timber and honey production were of particular interest for men, while women participants expressed more interest in fruit-bearing trees. Women also sought to focus on trees that could help ensure firewood supplies and improve soil fertility.
The next step for FCCC and its partners in North Kivu Province, Smith Dumont says, is to analyze the results of the meetings and combine them with what is known of agroforestry practices in the region. “That way,” she said, “we will be able to design tree selection and management tools that are customized to both the Lubero and Masisi districts so that they can be used to help our partner organizations to plant trees.”
The more trees in the landscape, the greater the diversity and extent of tree cover in these areas, the more resources available outside the park—and the less pressure there will be on the precious forests within the Virunga National Park.
For more information about this research, please contact Robert Nasi at email@example.com.
This research was funded in part by the European Union’s Global Climate Change Alliance and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.