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For forest dependent communities, securing rights to forests and lands that they hold by tradition and customs is a prerequisite for local development. Introduced by the Congolese forest code for natural resources management, this ensures protection against expropriation with land titles issued by the provincial governor.
Formal land titles indeed enables people to control their forests, and Tropenbos DR Congo successfully supported communities in obtaining official concessions. Therefore, local communities must be considered and consulted for forest decisions. "We tracked and seized wood, and prohibited farming that did not have our agreement", said Jacques Mapoli with enthusiasm, president of the Barumbi-Tshopo community forest. President of Bapondi community forest Valentine Natikotiko added, “animals that were one rare are beginning to return, especially okapis, as hunting with rifles have has almost stopped completely,” And the community evicted an illegal occupant on part of their concession after approaching the provincial governor. To sustainably manage community forests and equitable use of resources, they must assume greater responsibility, develop management plans, mobilize investments, and organize themselves into forest enterprises. This improve their income and livelihoods and conserves their forests for future generations, but financial and material challenge difficulties could not be overcome without the support of partners like Tropenbos DR Congo.
Local community forest concessions are issued free of charge and are perpetual, but in reality, the process requires the production site maps, resource inventories, statutes, regulations, and the legalization of documents. This takes time and money, and with administration costs, can reach US$100,000, way beyond the reach of local communities, not helped by widespread poverty and lack of information.
Based on foundations laid by the FAO in 2014, Tropenbos DR Congo supported three communities in Bafwasende territory in Tshopo in the northeast of the country and the most forested province in DR Congo, to obtain free and perpetual local community forest concessions titles in February 2020 – the very first in the province. But the road was not easy, and the Director of Tropenbos DR Congo, Alphonse Maindo emphasized the need to implement strategies to sustain actions. "We have promoted communities to adopt agroforestry, growing trees to shade cocoa, home gardens for growing maize, cassava, rice and other food crops, and encouraging income-generating activities to diversify the local economy to make these communities autonomous in the long term.” Tropenbos DRC also trained committees in preparing management plans, entrepreneurship, and how to create and manage producer organizations.
Encouraging the appropriation and securing of community forests for the community wellbeing is however, threatened by the creation of forest reserves, industrial logging, and the poor soil. Some communities have been dispossessed by the state of their customary forests on which their lives depend. As Joseph Lofole, Coordinator of the NGO Action for the Protection of the Rights of Forest Peoples" observes, “Areas have been allocated for conservation or mining, and this creates conflicts between local people and the managers of these sites". Other communities have even been forced to relocate in search of arable land.
There is also a lack of understanding regarding laws and regulations related to local community forest concessions, such as Decree 014, 025 and the Forest Code. “This lack of knowledge of the laws and their application are seeds of conflict between communities, traditional authorities and public administrations,” notes Patient Biselenge, a forest law expert. This is why NGOs are essential for sensitizing populations to adhere to correct processes. And Baby Matata, community forestry focal point for environment coordination in Tshopo Province, there are strong fears that with the lifting of the moratorium that prohibited the allocation of new protected areas or industrial development, that the State can again use communities forests for other purposes.