The Congo Basin Forests: a solution for both adaptation and mitigation

Submitted by Emilia Pramova | published 20th Nov 2012 | last updated 18th Jun 2018

The second largest tropical forest in the world, the Congo Basin has received global attention for its huge potential to slow the pace of climate change.

It is estimated to store 25 – 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which if released through deforestation or forest degradation would raise global temperatures even higher. In an effort to ensure that that carbon stays locked in the trees and out of the atmosphere, 16 REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) pilot projects are operating the region, forming part of a global scheme that aims to pay developing countries to keep forests standing.

CIFOR researchers have however pointed out that the forest is not just a carbon sink providing a global good, it is also a home and a larder for nearly 80 million people, most of whom are very poor, dependent on forest resources to survive, and vulnerable to climate disturbances.

In rural areas of the Congo Basin many communities depend on wild meat hunted in forests for up to 80% of the fat and protein in their diets. NTFPs (non timber forest products), play a vital role in supporting rural and urban livelihoods. Their collection and sale contribute to food security, health, income generation and employment in the Congo Basin. The sale of NTFPs contributes, on average, to 25 to 40 % of household income and women are largely involved in the collection of fuelwood, Gnetum spp. and safou.  Timber also contributes significantly to livelihoods. In Cameroon, the domestic informal timber market is as large as the industrial export-oriented one.

The forests of the Congo Basin have enormous potential for helping adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Constituting 18 percent of the world’s tropical forests they are of huge global significance to schemes that aim to reduce emissions from deforestation or degradation, such as REDD+. These forests also provide safety nets for millions of people, especially women, who are highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, fisheries, pastoral practices, and whose livelihoods may be threatened by changing weather patterns and resource scarcity.

The COBAM project aims to explore whether efforts to decrease carbon emissions can also help those living in the forest to adapt to a changing climate – and vice versa.

Lukolela, part of one of the COBAM sites, and of the ‘model forests’ under the African Model Forest Network, is already feeling the effects of a changing climate.

Lukolela is a small isolated town on the banks of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 540 kilometres from Kinshasa. Several days by boat from the capital, and with no connecting roads, it feels a long way from international debates about climate change.

Impacts of climate variability

Over the past ten years, Lukolela residents told CIFOR researchers, the area has experienced a series of climatic changes that are making life harder. In addition to unpredictable winds, the dry season has been getting longer, affecting agriculture and causing health problems due to reduced access to clean water.

In recent years, they have also noticed a mini dry season inside the wet season, which has been disastrous for the maize and cassava crops so many rely on for income.

The drier climate means average river levels are lower, too, and the fishermen say this is affecting fish stocks. Some key fish species rely for reproduction on floodwaters reaching wetland breeding habitats – but now, some years, the water doesn’t make it that far.

Every year, the ‘3/3’ or ‘third of the third’ wind would come roaring up the Congo River around March 3, batter the village for a day or two, and then disappear. But things are changing. The 3/3 wind is no longer living up to its name. It’s becoming unpredictable. This year, it came in February and blew ferociously for a week. People weren’t ready; crops and buildings were destroyed, and two children were killed by falling trees.

Whether these changes are local climate variations or part of the broader pattern of human-induced climate change has not been established – however what is clear is that even the slightest changes in the environment dramatically affect the lives of these people.

Lukolela’s Green Belt

In Lukolela, during the community workshops conducted by the COBAM team, villagers decided to reforest the riverbank and plant a ‘green belt’ around their town. The green belt, in addition to contributing to climate change mitigation through carbon storage, will also have multiple adaptation benefits.

Trees will reduce erosion, and act as a buffer against increased flooding and the violent winds. If certain species are planted, they will supply the village with fruits, edible caterpillars, firewood and charcoal – reducing the need to cut further and further into the forest for these purposes.

However, it is well-known that it is not enough to just plant trees. If there are no trees around the town, it is because people are cutting them down. Programmes and projects should thus emphasize on building awareness regarding the importance of trees, so that when people preserve the forest, they do not think that they are doing it for others but firstly for themselves.  

A glimmer of hope for Lukolela

Responding to Climate Change

Adapted from "Up the river & paddling hard: Climate adaptation & mitigation in the Congo" by Kate Evans.