14 February 2011, Kinshasa/Rome - In partnership with the European Union (EU), FAO is leading efforts to help the Democratic Republic of the Congo breathe new life into agricultural and forestry research, vital to nourish an underfed population and to preserve some of its most precious resources.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country 81 times the size of Belgium, is incredibly rich, and not only thanks to its resources underground. Its vast expanses of arable land and its immense forests possess unequalled potential.
But the riches trickle down only very sparsely to a population, over 70 percent of which is undernourished. And it is not yet clear what should be done to make sure that the forests and lands are developed in such a way that they will also benefit generations to come?
"All development begins with research ," says Gustave Tuka, former Secretary General of the Ministry of Scientific Research.
"Research used to be the pride of Congo," he adds, "but after a long period of lethargy, we are now just taking the first steps to bring it back to life." To illustrate the situation, he compares his country to Nigeria, which he says reportedly has more than 1200 full-time agricultural scientists. "Here we have only a handful of them."
Thinking back to late 2006, Patrick Houben of the European Union in Congo remembers: "We had the modest ambition to set a couple of teams of scientists to work." That was just the beginning of a major initiative in support of agricultural and forestry research, known by its French acronym as REAFOR, that is now in place with almost € 8 million in funding from the EU.
"Thanks to the support of the EU and with the backing of our many partners in agriculture and forestry, REAFOR is now reaching completion," says Ndiaga Gueye, FAO Representative in DR Congo.
REAFOR, he explains, is led by FAO, working with a host of specialised partners, including the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the National Institute for Agronomic Study and Research (INERA) and the University of Kisangani (UNIKIS).
In the area of forestry, 13 PhD-students and 35 MSc-students are carrying out research aimed at safeguarding one of the world's most valuable ecosystems, while at the same time improving the livelihoods of the people living in and around the forest, who greatly depend on it for their income and subsistence.
24 students are enrolled in agricultural research projects, 5 PhDs and 19 MScs. Their projects focus on basic Congolese food crops such as cassava and plantain, on how to produce more and better plants, while preserving the environment and the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, research stations from the heart of the rainforest to the high hills bordering Uganda or the southwestern savannahs, are being rehabilitated and equipped with state of the art material, so that the students have what they need to perform.
Where goes the system?
"Our aim is to provide Congo with the means to re-establish a critical mass of scientists for itself," says FAO's project manager, Nehru Essomba. Now that the students are preparing to defend their theses, and with REAFOR reaching completion, Essomba is confident that one of the immediate goals, the training of students and the rehabilitation of assets, will be achieved.
Moreover, he would like to leave behind the awareness that institutional reform is urgent. "Because a system cannot develop itself when it doesn't know in what direction it is going."
"We have reached our objectives," the EU's Patrick Houben agrees. He adds that the question now is how to keep research going. "And that," he concludes, "is up to the Congolese."