Nearly 15 years of working in the environmental field have made clear to me that executing conservation projects and programs requires careful planning … and the flexibility to roll with the punches when, inevitably, nothing goes as planned. This is the case anywhere we work, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
On my visit there last month, CI-DRC project manager Serge Omba and I had planned to spend a couple of days in Mbandaka, the capital of DRC’s Équateur province, and then continue on to Bokungu and nearby villages to conduct community consultations.
Fortunately, the recent conflict involving rebels in eastern DRC had no direct impact on us; people in Équateur are determined to press ahead with important development work regardless of the fighting in the east. However, issues with flights conspired to prevent our trip to the field, leaving us with the question of how to make the most of our time in Mbandaka. Although sitting on the hotel balcony gazing at the canoe traffic flitting across the rolling Congo River was certainly pleasant, we were eager to advance our Bonobo Conservation Concession initiative.
The bonobo (Pan paniscus) is a species of great ape found only in the DRC, as the Congo River serves as the northern border of its habitat. Together with the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), bonobos are the closest relatives of humans. This species is classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List; it is threatened by deforestation from logging and agricultural expansion and, especially, by illegal hunting for both bushmeat and the pet trade. (Get a glimpse at wild bonobos in the video below).
The key to avoiding extinction of the bonobo will be to ensure that people living in this region have viable alternatives to livelihoods that depend on habitat destruction and hunting.
The Bonobo Conservation Concession project involves making a deal between forest communities, the national government and conservation financiers. In some ways, the deal will resemble a timber concession, in which a timber company pays landowners or the government for the right to harvest trees. However, in our project the payments will be made to secure the right to manage the area for conservation, in partnership with local communities.
The relationship with communities will be governed by negotiated conservation agreements, using the approach developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP). Under these agreements, communities will participate in conservation management in return for local development investments such as constructing schools and bridges, as well as training and materials to raise agricultural productivity.
So where does the money to finance these agreements come from? One avenue we are exploring is international carbon markets (the recent disappointment at the U.N. climate talks in Doha notwithstanding), in which investors pay local governments or communities for carbon credits generated by avoiding emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).
The initiative has many moving parts, which means that CI will need to work in partnership with a wide range of actors. So, when he realized we were stuck in Mbandaka, Serge quickly settled on a plan to take advantage of our unanticipated extra time there.
He sent text messages to a long list of cell phone numbers, dispatched a collaborator to arrange a space, and drafted an agenda, and in less than 48 hours we organized a workshop with representatives from NGOs, key government agencies and academia in Mbandaka. I was astonished — in no time flat, an event materialized that was better attended than many other workshops with months of advance work.
The group of nearly 50 people from 17 organizations and agencies spent a full afternoon discussing the details of how REDD+ projects and CSP’s conservation agreements are typically structured, and how these tools can be applied to the DRC’s unique conditions. Clearly, civil society actors as well as the government of Équateur are eager to learn about and become involved in innovative approaches to conservation and development.
As a result of this workshop, CI has connected with many potential partners who are currently reflecting on how they may be able to contribute to the initiative as we move forward. This important step forward in the Bonobo Conservation Concession initiative was the result of Serge’s ability to adjust to changing circumstances and ensure that our time in Mbandaka was well spent.
As CI-DRC’s efforts in eastern DRC are complicated by rebel activity, adaptability by field staff like Serge is essential to maintain conservation efforts in parts of the country that have not yet been touched by the latest round of conflict.
Eduard Niesten is the senior director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.