REDD+ in the Congo: It has to be cost effective

“It has to be cost effective. It’s not about some expensive technology, it’s about appropriateness and cost effectiveness,” says Dr. Glenn Bush Projet Équateur’s principal investigator. Dr. Bush is an environmental economist who specializes in welfare economics, resource valuation, and environmental cost-benefit analysis.


A house in Bokumu Mokola – photo by Eva McNamara. More photos may be found on the Projet Équateur website.

Projet Équateur’s main office is located in Mbandaka, the capital of the northern province of Équateur. It is not only the most forested province in the country, but also the poorest—96 percent of its population exist on less than $1.25 USD per day. Consequently, most of the people depend on the forest for their livelihoods. Whether wood for cooking or processing into charcoal; non-timber forest products, such as bushmeat and medicinal plants; or as a source of fertile land to be cleared for agriculture, the community depends on the forest.

One example of a cost-effective technology is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), originally developed in the 1980s in Madagascar to counter forest loss for agricultural expansion. Aimed at wetland rice production systems, an enormous amount of labor is put into planting with the right spacing, weeding at the right time, and putting organic materials back into the field.

“It’s really all about how households manage their labor,” notes Dr. Bush. The result from local field trials is Equateur three times more yield than traditional wetland rice growing practice, and it doesn’t rely on any imported inputs. “When you’re dealing with communities in dysfunctional markets, where supply of goods and services is unreliable, and very often the quality of goods is poor, new technologies pose an awful risk to poor people. And anything that requires even a small outlay of cash is unattainable by many.”

These poor rural households often may not see more than $50 in cash in a year.

The Projet Équateur team has also been working on an agroforestry project. Agricultural intensification negatively impacts the hardiness of landscapes, but strategies like planting shade trees amongst crops helps avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of many understory crops.1 Traditional “slash and burn” farming systems convert forest or recent regrowth forest to fields. When crop yields begin to diminish, fields are abandoned, and the same process is started up elsewhere, leaving trees and brush to naturally regenerate for anything up to 15 years, a process called “forest fallowing.” As local populations increase so does the demand for land, and if fields can no longer be forest fallowed, then soil quality cannot improve and soon fields that are cultivated season upon season become degraded, and crop yields reduce rapidly. Farmers in these conditions need to move to a different, more intensive mode of managing their land, and this is where agroforestry comes in to play. Shade trees increase functional biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil fertility, drought resistance as well as weed and biological pest control.
“It’s easy to identify what trees to plant, and where to plant them,” says Dr. Bush, “And we help provide shade trees, but the real need is for training and organization. A key challenge is that labor is scarce at certain times of the year.” He is saying that farmers need to be taught that their fields will require attention all year round, and that attention will yield benefits, but that alone is not enough For example, SRI had remarkable impacts with trials, but it hasn’t enjoyed much widespread adoption, because at key times of the year family members need to be recruited to weed, or to create a new paddy field. But typically, at those times those family members are needed elsewhere: very often they go off to work in a field that belongs to someone else to earn extra cash.

Melaine Kermarc, WHRC’s Projet Équateur project manager adds, “It’s also that people are unable to find the labor force necessary to create the paddy in the first place. It’s a huge initial investment. Once the paddy is there though it becomes a great incentive not to go further to deforest because they have regular income or food, with limited amount work in comparison to other crops.”

Connection to REDD+

Where does the money come from? Dr. Bush explains, “What we’re looking for with climate financing is how to apply those funds to help with focus-areas like adoption. If we’re introducing SRI into a community as part of the REDD program, how could we use some of the REDD funds to provide incentives for people to stay on their fields, and really adopt that new technology—technology that in turn, will increase the yield up to three times.”

If the farming households can’t get to the point where they actually see the benefit, they will be unlikely to adopt a new technology, however promising. For this reason the novel solutions must be cost effective, and must offer clear economic and social benefits above what is currently done.

REDD+ is about combatting deforestation—about keeping the forest standing. Forests in many African nations are disappearing not because of big multi-national companies or industrial forestry per se, but because of smallholder agriculture and demand for charcoal. Hundreds of thousands of households clear a quarter of an acre to an acre every year using slash and burn techniques. Most poor rural households try to manage their livelihoods based on what Dr. Bush calls a “low input system,” rather than more commercial or industrial methods that we might typically think of such as agriculture affecting forests in other parts of the world, like Brazil and Indonesia. However, this has removed around one million hectares of forest cover in the last twelve years in Équateur Province alone.

“So we want to put this REDD+ money to work, to help these small farmers intensify their agricultural production, and help them through these adoption cycles to put appropriate technologies in to practice,” he says. This will sponsor the right type of agricultural training, and small rural activities that focus on the direct drivers of deforestation. And REDD+ funds need to pony up with other funding sources earmarked for agricultural development and renewable energy. (Another major driver of deforestation in the DRC is the use of woody biomass for cooking.) In order to deal with deforestation in terms of slash-and-burn agricultural—what is known as the extensification of agriculture—such traditional practices need to be replaced with new practices, like the SRI agricultural intensification model.

For more information about Projet Équateur:


1 Journal of Applied Ecology 2011, 48, 619–629 doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01939.x Multifunctional shade-tree management in tropical agroforestry landscapes – a review.

Teja Tscharntke 1*, Yann Clough 1, Shonil A. Bhagwat 2, Damayanti Buchori 3, tz Schroth 10, Edzo Veldkamp 11 and Thomas C. Wanger 1,12