Democratic Republic of Congo

Children carrying firewood, border of the Virungas park, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 2007.
© CI/Photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Stretching across 1.7 million kilometers (more than 650,000 square miles — about the size of Alaska), the Congo Forest of Central Africa is the second largest block of tropical rainforest left on earth. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) holds the largest share of this forest and its exceptional biodiversity, including a number of the world's threatened great ape species.

Species such as the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a relative of the giraffe; bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus); forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and majestic mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), for which the region is best known, share the landscape with a human populace that — sadly — has faced steady poverty and conflict for years.

IN-DEPTH: Discover what CI and its partners are doing to protect gorillas.

At the eastern edge of this expansive country, bordered by the western mountains of Africa's famed Rift Valley, the DRC is home to some of the most remote and intact forests in the greater Congo Basin, and in the world. The traditional inhabitants of these lush forests have overcome difficult human conditions to define a route forward that protects their natural assets and plans development for a corridor the size of West Virginia.

Conflict and Cooperation

Civil wars in Rwanda and DRC brought widespread human suffering, and left most public infrastructure devastated. Recent history has further isolated and impoverished many communities. Even before Rwanda and the DRC began to pursue peace in the region, some communities were taking their future into their own hands, seeking a path that improved the lives of their children, but protected the globally important natural assets for which they consider themselves traditional stewards.

LEARN MORE: The majority of the world's conflicts have taken place in some of the most biologically diverse and threatened areas on Earth.

Conservation International (CI) and our partners in the region are helping these communities with the financial and technical support necessary to stimulate an economy that benefits both people and the landscapes they steward. We are also replicating their model in other parts of the Congo Forests.

People, Forests and Traditional Rights

In the DRC, eight tribal authorities formed a federation, known locally as UGADEC, to plan land use for 31,000 square kilometers (approximately 12,000 square miles) of their traditional lands.

Their intention is to protect unique biodiversity in strict nature reserves, and to plan development in the rest of their territories to manage growth in relation to the exploding population of the mountains to the east. (The Albertine rift is among the most densely populated regions in all of Africa, with densities as high as 300 people per square kilometer [300/km2] in places — comparatively, India has a national population density of 336/km2.)

In exchange for their commitment to conservation and development, CI and our partners have helped these tribal leaders build a professional program of monitoring and protection for their nature reserves, and have found financing for a number of community development initiatives, including a university, an orphanage, a community radio station and a hydropower station. Two affiliated tribal authorities have completed their plans, and their nature reserves are now a part of the DRC's protected area network.

READ MORE: Saving Congo Forest Benefits Gorillas

Transformative Conservation

In parts of this region, the old conservation paradigm holds true. Rangers who are not from the area work for the state, manage a park militarily and attempt to counter threats emerging from outside the park. Now, however, the government and local communities are working together to protect both government and community parks through harmonized management, joint patrols and trainings, and mutual development agendas.

The DRC government has even begun to send some of its best rangers to the CI-supported Tayna Center for Conservation Biology (TCCB), and UGADEC leaders are bolstering the management of protected areas, educating their children at the university, improving agricultural techniques and financing small enterprises.

In the end, it is the rooting of conservation in the local ethic and the local development vision that will make these efforts sustainable.

With peace, these leaders also envision a role in the highly lucrative gorilla-based ecotourism business that has become a major source of revenue in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda.

 IN PHOTOS: The Tayna Gorilla Reserve

CI is also hosting a training this spring that will help them enter into the global market for climate mitigation (REDD) to help finance their conservation and development actions into perpetuity.

Moving Forward

In the face of such successes, but fully aware of ongoing threats such as mining and the illegal wildlife trade, CI remains committed to supporting far-reaching and innovative community-based conservation as a model for working with traditional communities throughout Africa and the world.

In a region of the world so biologically critical yet so troubled by recent and tragic civil conflict, CI has an immediate opportunity to help an extraordinary group of African traditional leaders protect the biological heritage of their ancestral lands.

LEARN MORE: Discover the Congo Basin high-biodiversity wilderness area.

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