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Revisiting the Congo: A year after opening for oil drilling

With significant climate implications. The Congo Basin Rainforest is the second largest rainforest in the world and hosts about 70% of Africa’s tree cover. With a large portion of the rainforest made of peatlands, it serves as a powerful carbon sink. Disrupting it would be a significant loss in our efforts to maintain a livable climate. The people who would pay the biggest price would be rural farming populations, like our partners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

When we discussed this news with our DRC Program Manager, Birori Gaparani Dieudonne, we were able to hear his honest thoughts. He acknowledged that the possibility of environmental destruction in the Congo Basin Rainforest was a real threat. But he also noted that the DRC wasn’t defenseless.

“We see that the most important actors every time is the local community that lives in that particular area. If the community has been trained and has understood the value of their nature, then they will work to protect it. It always requires the cooperation of the local community. That’s why we are working to make sure people are trained with the knowledge of how to maintain their land.”

In short, Birori emphasized that if a community values its ecosystem, they will be its strongest defenders and most generous caretakers. And like the rest of Plant With Purpose’s global alliance, this is the focus of Birori’s work in the DRC. Activities like planting trees or protecting forest areas are incomplete without an understanding of how these activities support the health of a whole ecosystem, and how a healthy ecosystem benefits everything that lives there, including human communities.

Over the past year we’ve amplified our investment in the communities of the DRC. We are working with 74 communities across seven watersheds, where we’ve established 369 Purpose Groups. Within these Purpose Groups, members are trained in ecosystem restoration skills. These groups are locally led, which means communities have more agency in determining what happens to their land. These groups also provide locals with opportunities to connect environmental restoration with sustainable business activities to reduce the burden of poverty.

These activities take place in rural communities, which are often remote and difficult to get to. However, these are the most climate vulnerable communities and the communities where poverty is most prevalent. Most people in these areas are reliant on agriculture, which cannot sufficiently produce enough food without a healthy climate and surrounding ecosystem. Building economic sufficiency supports environmental protection.

Members acknowledge seeing both their quality of life change as well as their relationship with the environment. Sifa Furaha, a mother of seven in the Kakumba watershed of the DRC joined a Purpose Group when Plant With Purpose was new to the area. At the time, slash-and-burn agriculture was widely practiced, causing deforestation. Members of Birori’s team promoted agroforestry, among other methods, as more sustainable ways to increase food production. Sifa Furaha participated in a project for holistic watershed transformation and began by planting citrus trees on an agroforestry plot. “I am thankful to Plant With Purpose,” she expresses, “because these actions to protect the environment have also strengthened our ability to have household savings.”

She also notes how these shifts in behavior go beyond individual households, spreading across an entire community. She notes that when she first started planting her citrus trees, her community scoffed and told her that she would regret it.

“Now that I’ve been selling the fruits from my farm, I’ve invited the entire community to come and help me harvest. They see me earn an income from this farm, which I plan to invest in other plots of land. My neighbors are now motivated to apply these same techniques on their farms.”

It has been over a year since the sale of oil blocks in the Congo Basin Rainforest was announced, and we have seen that Birori’s assessment of the situation was completely accurate. Local populations working at the grassroots level are the strongest protectors of their own ecosystems.

As of summer 2023, only one single drilling site has been established in the Congo Basin Rainforest. The German energy-monitoring platform, Gogel, has summarized:

“So far, oil companies’ attempts to turn the Congo Basin into an oil production zone have failed. Environmental defenders kept fossil fuel companies out of the Virunga National Park. They will continue to fight for healthy rainforests, undisturbed peatlands and a fossil-free Congo Basin.”

Those who have been the most resistant to drilling in their communities are women, farmers, and fisherfolk.

The effort to equip communities with the tools to make sustainable decisions about the future of their ecosystems is ongoing. We seek to keep expanding our program to other areas of the DRC, as the challenges of climate change and poverty persist. The important role that local communities play in this process calls to mind the importance of Community Designed Restoration©(CDR).

CDR is an approach to ecosystem restoration and community development. This approach prioritizes local leadership and community involvement in efforts to restore ecosystems and address community needs. This is a proven methodology to restore ecology and communities to a state of abundance. Our evaluations have found a decline in household poverty rates by over half. Remote sensing analysis has shown that in many partner watersheds, vegetation, and tree cover increase relative to a comparison watershed.

Ultimately, our hope is for communities to be able to determine the future of their land. Without training, education, or organization, rural communities can be vulnerable to exploitation. Severe poverty can also be a driving factor, as people become more likely to resort to short-term decision making in desperation. However, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have shown us that even in some of the most challenging places to live, people can become agents of change and shape their own futures.

About the Author

Philippe shares the stories of people living at the forefront of the climate crisis, who are working to transform their ecosystems and communities. He loves emphasizing the human experience, and keeping conversations about the environment centered on the communities most affected by it. Philippe has led storytelling trips to Mexico, Thailand, Colombia, Tanzania, South Africa, Haiti, and a number of other countries. He has previously served in similar roles at Liberty in North Korea and Mobility International.

Philippe obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He furthered his studies by earning a Master of Arts in International Studies as well as a Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management at University of Oregon. Philippe is also an illustrator, podcaster, and digital artist. Outside of work, Philippe loves spending time with his wife and their three kids.

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