Meet the next generation of Congolese forest experts
Cameroon – (Forests News) – To foment lasting change, tackling the challenges facing forests in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), requires addressing root causes.
When researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS) first began working together over a decade ago, a pressing problem was identified: the country lacked highly educated professionals and trained experts to properly manage its vast forests.
In 2005, there were only six people with postgraduate degrees working as forestry researchers in DRC, although it is home to some of the largest undisturbed stands of tropical rainforest on the planet.
Finding solutions to deforestation and forest degradation in DRC is vital. Forests are under pressure due to prolonged conflict, population growth, lack of economic opportunities, widespread food insecurity and illegal logging, among other factors. As a result, the country has been developing expertise in the particular challenges facing its forests. Investing in high-level education is the first step to promote better forest management.
CIFOR and UNIKIS, supported by the European Union, set out to prepare qualified human resources in the forest sector and have since trained 154 master’s level students and 36 Ph.D. students in collaboration with local and international teachers. Some of these graduates have gone on to become reputable scientists and professors in universities, or private sector and government officials. Little by little, a new generation of Congolese forest experts is emerging, ready to use their knowledge to serve their country.
During the first international scientific conference “African Forests Policies and Politics” (AFORPOLIS) held in Yaoundé from 24-27 September 2018, an interview with three master’s level students about to finish their studies shed light on their efforts. The students, who are participating in the UNIKIS-CIFOR sustainable forest management program, supported by the project FORETS (Formation, Recherche et Environement dans la Tshopo), and funded by the European Union, traveled to Cameroon to present the results of their research with forest specialists from across the globe.
Hermane Diesse grew up in Kinshasa, the country’s busy capital. An agronomist by training, he chose the program to become an expert on how to preserve his country’s biodiversity while increasing agricultural production.
Sagesse Nziavake is from North Kivu, a hilly province in eastern DRC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, and dreams of developing a green economy in her home country. Her goal is to contribute to shape national economic policies that will allow DRC to develop sustainably.
Finally, Eliezer Majambu is from resource-rich Kasai-Oriental province in central DRC. His background is in political science, and he is interested in developing better forest policies. He was motivated to choose the CIFOR/UNIKIS program after witnessing the lack of interest in forests by social science specialists. “We need more people in the public policy field to take care of the conservation of our forests,” he said.
HELPING DRC TO BETTER MANAGE ITS FORESTS
Although Hermane, Sagesse and Eliezer come from very different backgrounds and corners of the country, they all agree on one thing: DRC needs better forest management. The country is very rich in forest resources, but more efforts are needed to ensure they contribute to improve the living conditions of all Congolese, and that they are preserved for the generations to come, they say.
“More Congolese people need to get interested in our forests,” said Eliezer. “We need to study the dynamics of the communities living off the forest and think of new ways to protect and improve their livelihoods, but at the same time, protect our natural heritage.”
“Agriculture, for example, is putting our forests under pressure,” added Hermane. “People in the villages need to make a living, they need money to survive. We need to help them to increase their agriculture production, so they live better, but we should do so in a way that it does not come at the cost of our forests.”
BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN SCIENTISTS AND COMMUNITIES
The first step to contribute to better forest management is to bring scientists and experts close to the communities, so they can get experience on the ground, be enriched by local knowledge and produce new knowledge that is applicable to local realities and can improve the living conditions of the population, experts agree.
The three students had the opportunity to experience this dynamic first hand, conducting their thesis research in the landscape of Yangambi, a forest area near Kisangani where another component of the FORETS project operates. Their fieldwork allowed them to choose relevant research topics and produce practical knowledge for people living in this area.
Eliezer, for example, studied the role that traditional institutions play in the management of forest resources. After closely observing the local power dynamics in a village near Yangambi, he could make recommendations on how to better manage conflict between traditional authorities and local government, and to increase cooperation to avoid overexploitation and degradation of the forest.
Sagesse researched the dynamics of wood fuel consumption and supply by micro-enterprises in Yangambi. She measured how much wood fuel local businesses use, given that they lack access to other sources of energy. This study allowed her to estimate the impact of the sector on forest degradation and carbon dioxide production.
Hermane studied the trees that farmers have planted in Yangambi and their effect on the chemical composition of the soil. He found that farmers keep certain trees in their fields, mainly because of the edible products they offer and not necessarily because they contribute to biodiversity or change soil composition. He hopes his research will help the local community improve agroforestry techniques.
“My fieldwork made me question why are interventions in the communities not working?” Sagesse said. Why are projects not producing socioeconomic development? I learned that we need to talk more with the people, ask them to propose solutions, work together with the community to design projects. Only then we’ll generate real interest and change behaviors that are bad for the environment,” she added.
The students aim to continue to build relevant knowledge. “We want to continue studying, of course,” Sagesse said. “If we have the opportunity to apply for a Ph.D., we’ll take it. We would like to further specialize in our fields.”
“If we are more prepared, we can access more opportunities to get a good job and a better salary,” she added.
In a country where formal employment opportunities are limited, these students are determined to stand out and become specialists in their domains.
This work is supported by the European Union.
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