CONGO: Mapping resources for survival

The initiative started in the first half of this year in Assengue, Ibangui, Epounou and Inga villages in Ollombo District, with the aim of protecting their livelihoods in the face of rampant deforestation and logging activities.

Implemented by the Congolese Human Rights Forum (OCDH) with the Rainforest Foundation of UK (RFUK), the project aims to promote the rights of forest communities to access, control and utilize the forests in accordance with Congolese law.

It is also being implemented in two other countries in the Congo basin - Gabon and the Central African Republic. Funding came from the UK Department for International Development.

"Its aim is to ensure that the forest communities, the authorities and civil society in each of the three countries have the capacity and resources to accurately map the occupation and use of the forests and provide data to help decision-making relating to forests and forest communities," said Georges Thierry Handja, the project coordinator.

The maps show areas where local people grow food crops, fish, gather berries and other food resources and where they hunt. They will be used as a tool in negotiations with logging companies and the authorities.

"What is a plus, is that local people support the project and are themselves making the maps and registering their interest," said Joseph Moumbouilou, head of studies and projects in the Congolese Ministry of Forest Economy.

"In the process of planning the units of forest land that are to be exploited, we will henceforth use this data, which will allow the interests of local and autochthonous communities to be taken into account."

A similar project in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008 trained “Master Mappers” to help more than 500 villagers use GPS technology to map their forests.

Village participation

"People talk to us about exploitation of the forest, but what exactly are we going to gain?" one villager, Parfait Nganguia, asked. "We know what we will gain if our forests are preserved, given that these forests do not have abundant game and the rivers don’t yield as many fish as in the past."

Like many other villagers in Ollombo, people in Assengue get most of their food from the forest, including cassava, meat and fish. Cassava leaves are also important because they are sold in the markets at Ollombo and the capital, Brazzaville, bringing in much-needed income.

"There is a rush for the trees," Réné Ngongo, from the local NGO, Organisation Concertée des Ecologistes et Amis de la Nature, which was working with the RFUK.

"What is at stake is enormous," he added. "Two-thirds of the people in Congo depend on this forest to provide food, medicines and building materials. It is critical for the survival of the people and animals."

According to official data, Congo's forests cover 22.5 million hectares or 65 percent of the national territory. In the 1970s, timber was the country's main economic resource before oil took over.