REDD+ in the Congo: Buya Pilot Project

“How do we know your project isn’t going to ruin everything for us?” asked a Bokumu Mokola village elder.

There began the challenge.

“This is all voluntary. We’re going to find out about you, and you’re going to find out about us,” said Dr. Glenn Bush, the Projet Équateur principal investigator, and an assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “And you’ll learn what REDD+ is all about. If you like what you hear, and want to go ahead with the project, it would be your choice.”

It was the first time in decades spent working in development science that the question had been posed to Dr. Bush — after years spent working in post-war Uganda, and post-war Rwanda.

“And it came like a breath of fresh air,” chuckled Dr. Bush.

In a continent ravaged by wars, internal displacements, genocide, and famine, this traditional African community seemed to have escaped much of the apocalyptic history and consequential dysfunction. Situated in northern Equateur, Bokumu Mokola has been resilient, maintaining much of its traditional customary ways, and as a result it is surprisingly functional.

“The village customary chief we dealt with is very strong, but very fair, and everything was extremely well organized,” he said.

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WHRC Scientists Wayne Walker and Glenn Bush follow villagers from Bokumu Mokula through their forest, marking village boundaries, primary forest, and deforested plots – photo by Eva McNamara. More photos may be found on the Projet Équateur website.

After arriving in Bokumu Mokola, Projet Équateur held a series of workshops to inform the community about REDD+, to receive their feedback, and tabulate and investigate what their local development priorities and environmental issues were. The team wanted particularly to understand the connections between the two for the community, because the nexus of these would provide opportunities for REDD+ to make an impact.

“We told them that REDD+ can’t help with all of their problems, but it can help in relation to their forests,” says Dr. Bush. Then using a system of participatory planning the team came up with a series of options to invest in. These scenarios considered the community’s particular needs, but it also took note of whose needs are different, who has certain claims to the forest, and different abilities to engage in different types of development activities. The team wanted to fulfill an important and challenging REDD+ consideration—nobody should be worse off because of its implementation.

The landless are important

In Buya, another pilot community in southern Equateur, about 60 percent of the people don’t have any ancestral claims to land or forests. But any agricultural program usually focuses on people with land. If all the REDD+ revenue flowed only into agricultural intensification, an important percentage of the population would be missed.

Why are they important?

“The landless are made up of the Pygmy people who have a longstanding cultural connection to the forest, and the les venants or incomers,” Dr. Bush said.

Many of these people were either dislodged by conflict, or were attracted from other parts of Equateur to work as wage labor on roads and other colonial sponsored projects.

“In Buya, it’s mostly people that couldn’t make it in the city and moved back to wherever they could,” said WHRC’s Equateur Project Manager Melaine Kermac.

And all of them use the forest as a key resource.

“They hunt, gather, fell in the forest, and so their livelihood is inextricably linked with the forest,” said Dr. Bush. REDD+ needs to focus on them as well, to support their income, provide benefits, and reward them as equal custodians of the forests.

It’s a complex process recognizing who has rights to the forests, and exactly what those rights are. REDD+ funding is for conserving the forests, and the Buya Pilot Project was interested in how to get the money to the right interest groups in the most effective way.

For more information about Projet Équateur: projetequateur.org