Major reforestation milestone: DRC plants 90% of 1 billion trees goal, despite unexpected obstacles

A man planting acacia trees

— According to the FAO, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) loses 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest cover every year due to shifting cultivation, mining, and illegal and informal logging.

— As part of addressing this, a Congolese government program aspired to plant 1 billion trees between 2019 and 2023, aiming to strengthen climate resilience, alleviate poverty and protect biodiversity.

— Program officials say they achieved 90% of their target. A forestry specialist says that future reforestation efforts should include feasibility studies, informing tree species selection to maintain ecological balance.

Every weekend between January 2022 and December 2023, members of the nongovernmental organization Ferme Don de Dieu (FDD) planted trees on farmland in Yolo and Kinzono, on the outskirts of Mbankana, more than 140 km (87 miles) from Kinshasa.

With the help of technicians from the Congolese environment ministry’s reforestation department, they planted eucalyptus and acacia trees over an area of 33 hectares (81.5 acres). Eucalyptus was chosen for at least 22 hectares (54 acres), due to its ability to tolerate difficult soil and climatic conditions.

The trees are part of a Congolese government program known as Jardin scolaire 1 milliard d’arbres à l’horizon 2023 (School garden: 1 billion trees by 2023), which was officially launched in December 2019 with the aim of planting 1 billion trees across the country by 2023.

FDD’s Léa Nyakala Ngila says that reforestation is now an integral part of her organization’s mission, and that she and her teams will continue to plant trees even after the government program comes to an end.

“Although we plant cassava and other crops on our land, we can no longer avoid the question of reforestation,” she says. “This initiative reflects our commitment to help fight global warming.”

The overarching aim of the government program is to fight climate change and poverty, as well as protect biodiversity.

A decimated area in a forest in the DRC
According to the FAO, the DRC is losing 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest each year due to shifting cultivation, mining and illegal and informal logging. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Forests under pressure

The DRC’s forests, which make up 60% of the Congo Basin’s forested area, are under pressure, due to shifting cultivation, informal and illegal logging and mining.

Deforestation is also happening around major towns and urban centers such as Kinshasa and Mbandaka. Forest loss in these peri-urban areas stems from the basic need for firewood and charcoal, used by households in the absence of alternatives such as electricity or gas.

“We began by drawing attention to the risks to which the entire planet is exposed,” Céline Pembele tells Mongabay. Pembele heads up the Reforestation and Horticulture Directorate (DRHo), the technical service in charge of implementing the program.

“We started with schoolchildren, who feature in the project’s name, then households and local communities. [We need] to bring about a mindset shift, in which they take ownership of this program their own and sustaining it.”

She says her department also called on civil society, local communities and several government bodies, such as the provincial environment and sustainable development offices and sectoral public services.

“Although the project got off to a shaky start due to a number of technical and financial difficulties, the government, encouraged by the enthusiasm of stakeholders, financed forest landscape restoration activities in several provinces, which will offset the felling of mature trees.”

A man collecting charcoal
Informal charcoal production: deforestation in peri-urban areas is linked to the need for firewood and charcoal. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Reforestation is improving

Ten percent of the world’s tropical forests are found in the DRC. But the FAO estimates the DRC is losing 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of forest every year.

In 2020, an FAO report revealed that reforestation in the DRC hovered around 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) per year between 1990 and 2015.

Pembele says she believes that, as a result of stakeholders buying into reforestation, the situation has improved in recent years.

According to the DRHo that she leads, almost 895 million trees were planted between 2019 and 2023, covering just under 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) across 22 provinces.

“Surveys carried out by the DRHo show significant and remarkable growth in restored areas from 2020, after the launch of the program.”

Mongabay contacted Ludovic Mweya, a member of Réseau Congo Mazingira, an environmental organization based in Lubumbashi, who acknowledges the hard work of the project’s stakeholders.

“We must recognize the considerable efforts that have been made, and there are signs that a large area has been restored,” he says. “Our only fear is that the recently planted trees may not reach maturity due to a lack of follow-up now that the five-year project has come to an end.”

Significant losses were recorded even during the five years of the program. Pembele tells Mongabay that trees were removed from some reforested sites, most notably in the N’Sele Nature Reserve in Kinshasa, in Kabunene in Haut-Katanga and in the Masako Forest Reserve in Tshopo.

“Almost 20,000 seedlings in the nursery at Lodja in Sankuru were destroyed, and 240,000 seedlings were lost due to fire, due to a lack of maintenance of the firebreaks.”

As a result, almost 1 million seedlings are still languishing in DRHo nurseries around the provinces.

A person carrying firewood on top of their hair
Carrying firewood in Yangambi, Tshopo, DRC. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A forestry expert’s warning

Tree types were selected on the basis of the requirements of each restored site, Pembele says. Eucalyptus, fir (Abies), cacao (Theobroma cacao), acacia and calliandra (Calyandra cuspidata) were among the species planted as part of the project.

“In the Batéké Plateau [in Kinshasa’s agricultural commune of N’Sele], for example, we used agroforestry. There, we chose to plant acacias. As well as being a leguminous plant, acacias contain a wealth of fertilizers that has enabled farmers living in this area to produce well over the last three seasons,” Pembele explains.

A forestry specialist based in Goma, on the other side of the country, says he believes the initiative was a good idea insofar as it aimed to restore degraded forest.

But the specialist, who has closely followed the project from its inception and asked not to be named to protect relationships, says this project took place in the absence of a standardized framework to guide reforestation.

“With a reforestation policy, we would know which species can be used for reforestation and where to plant them in order to maintain the ecological balance of the areas or sites to be reforested, and we would also have an understanding of where the problem is most acute,” he says.

“A reforestation effort around Goma is not the same as one in Beni or Lubero, for example, because they fall into different ecological zones,” he tells Mongabay. “All of this must be taken into account when designing a reforestation project, in order to maintain the ecological balance. We should not reforest everywhere with exotic species like eucalyptus, cypress [Cupressus] or calliandra, which are not indigenous plants and, above all, not adapted to Goma’s soil.”

A woman holds an acacia seedling on one of her hands while smiling at the camera
Planting acacias near Yanonge, DRC. Image by Fiston Wasanga/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

According to the specialist, there are serious consequences to reforestation carried out in this way, and the effects are already being felt in parts of eastern Congo, where eucalyptus was planted as part of the “1 billion trees by 2023” project.

“Farming has been disrupted, and the majority of the population [in eastern Congo] make their living from agriculture. In some towns, water sources are drying up.”

The area in and around Goma is a forest region, whereas Kinshasa and Lubumbashi are savanna environments. According to the DRHo’s Pembele, intercropping of fast-growing eucalyptus and acacia trees with cassava on the land in Yolo enriches the soil and boosts biodiversity.

But the forestry expert in Goma says he believes the coexistence between cassava and eucalyptus in Mbakana will cause problems in the long term.

“Clearly, there have been no feasibility studies. Eucalyptus acidifies the soil, and acidic soil is not productive. In around five years’ time, the risks will begin to show in these savanna strips with the gradual disappearance of the undergrowth. This will jeopardize food security.”

The expert says a better option in eastern Congo would be to plant endemic species, like the African juniper (Juniperus procera) or East African mahogany (Khaya anthotheca), okoumé (Aucoumea klaineana) or baobab (Adansonia digitata), because their ecological characteristics will promote local biodiversity and encourage natural ecosystem recovery.

This article was originally published by Mongabay.

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June 23, 2024 6:00 AM
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