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Farmers are Increasing their Livelihood Security and Conserving Forests in the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
With support from WCS, 3,500 poor families living around the Okapi Wildlife Reserve are growing organic, shade-grown cacao, and selling the beans as a cooperative to international buyers at a favorable price. Cacao provides farmers with a regular income, and growing within a mixed agroforestry system allows them to maintain soil fertility in areas that have already been cleared. This reduces pressure to clear new areas of forest to have access to fertile land.
The Ituri Forest, in the eastern DRC, is home to some of the most extraordinary biodiversity in the Congo Basin. Covering some 63,000 km2, it is a stronghold for about 3,500 okapi and as many as 1,500 forest elephants, as well as 17 species of primates and 10 species of forest antelope. The Ituri has 333 species of birds, over 500 species of butterflies and some 2,500 species of plants, including 75 commercially valuable timber species. The Ituri is also home to about 500,000 people, of whom about 350,000 are Bantu farmers, and 150,000 are Mbuti and Efe hunter-gatherers.
The Ituri forest lies at the edge of the most densely populated region in DRC and is seen as a settlement frontier by land and resource hungry families. Poor unemployed immigrants are doing almost anything to make a living. Some are killing elephants for their ivory, hunting wildlife for sale in bushmeat markets, felling trees for timber, and mining rivers and streams for gold and other precious metals. Traditionally, farmers in this area practice swidden agriculture. While rotating land-use from forest, to crops, to fallow forest and back to crops is a long-standing practice and sustainable at low population densities, in the context of high rates of immigration by farmers fleeing poverty and violence elsewhere, these practices are either abandoned or were never known. As a result, farmers tend to cut down and burn trees in an area, farm for several years, until soil fertility and crop production declines, then move on to cut down new areas of old-growth forest, never returning to their fallow fields. Projected population growth and continuing immigration will only increase forest clearing in the future.
To reduce the current wave of deforestation, WCS is working with local farmers to stabilize farming systems, by introducing agroforestry techniques that are wildlife and forest-friendly. These combine fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing tree species with shade-grown cacao. The trees improve soil fertility, sequester carbon, and provide fuelwood and construction poles. Cacao is a relatively high-value cash crop that contributes to household incomes and provides farmers with a source of capital to invest in tools and inputs to increase farm productivity while providing work for individuals who would otherwise take part in logging, mining or charcoal production.
Participating farmers benefit from technical training and mentorship from professional agronomists, and access to international markets. To participate in the program farmers must confine their agricultural activities to forest fallows and degraded lands. Participating farmers are able to join a producer cooperative, named the Union of Cacao Producers of the Congo, which is able to secure better prices through quality control and higher volume sales. Since 2012, 3,500 farmers received training and have started cultivating shade-grown cacao as their primary economic activity.
By helping maintain soil fertility, the agroforestry system reduces the pressure to expand farming beyond agreed zones. Including cacao as part of the agroforestry system also helps stabilize farming, because it is a perennial crop which adds value to the current annual crop system. Cacao also provides a pathway for increasing incomes as more trees enter production, yields increase and quality improves. Farmers receive technical support and premium prices as long as they continue to follow shade-cocoa growing guidelines, giving them an economic incentive to practice environmentally friendly agriculture.
WCS has worked with farmers to carry out what we call micro-zoning exercises, which define zones for farming, extracting forests products, hunting and conservation. Community members and political authorities in the area talk about the positive results of micro-zoning, which has increased land-tenure security, although they recognized that resident farmers did not have the authority under Congolese law to exclude new migrants.
Since 2016, land-tenure laws have change and it is now possible to establish Local Community Forest Concessions (CFCLs, for their acronym in French), which legally recognize community rights. WCS and local communities are in the process of establishing CFCLs. As this occurs, we expect the agroforestry systems based on shade-grown cacao and the new CFCLs to be mutually reinforcing. Because, 1) explicit recognition of community rights by being part of a CFCL will provide additional security for investments by farmers in shade-grown cacao, and 2) implementation of agroforestry systems with cacao will add value to the CFCLs and makes them a more attractive option for managing forest lands.
The introduction of agroforestry has improved farmers revenues and should provide a regular income for decades to come. Based on WCS trials in the area, shade-grown cacao shows higher yields than cacao grown in open fields. Surveys show that 54% of families in the villages where shade-grown cacao is grown are already earning income from the practice. Families are contributing the resulting revenues to schools, and improving their own food security nutrition by purchasing more animal source foods.
Harvester using shears to harvest cocoa pods/Moïse Enduyi Kimuha ©WCS
Cocoa plantation shaded by banana trees/Moïse Enduyi Kimuha ©WCS
Dreick Mutahyo, administrator of UPCCO, provides training on fermenting cocoa beans/Melaine Kermarc ©WCS
UPCCO provides farmers with materials, such as the tarp shown here, to improve the conditions under which they process cocoa/Melaine Kermarc ©WCS
This work was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway/NICFI, The World Bank and the Congo Basin Forest Fund.