In the service of Congo’s development

Research between exploitation and conservation

14 February 2011, Kinshasa/Rome - This is a special day for Frank Bapeamoni. Up to his knees in a creek in the reserve of Yoko, in the heart of DR Congo's rain forest, he releases a small creature, that vehemently sways its sharp red beak, from his net. Proudly, he shows its blue and orange feathers. For the first time in his life, he has caught a kingfisher.

Bapeamoni, an ornithologist, is carrying out field work for his PhD-research on the role of birds in the ‘dynamics' of the Yoko forest. He wants to know how birds, by eating the seeds or fruits of trees and plants, spread them and, thus, contribute to the expansion of the forest. "Birds are the true farmers of the forest," he says.

For more than a year, Bapeamoni has been coming to Yoko, which hosts a facility of the nearby University of  Kisangani (UNIKIS). Setting out in the early morning, he checks the catch of his nets, strategically located throughout the reserve. Today, as usual, he has the company of other forestry researchers, such as Jean-Marie Kahindo, investigating the economic potential of rattan, one of DR Congo's most important non-wood forest products.

It has never been studied before though, Kahindo points out. "It is as if Congo doesn't know what Congo possesses," he says. Kahindo, who has been in the field for over a year, gives an example of his findings: every month 74, 000 meters of rattan leave the Yoko-area for the markets in Kisangani and Kinshasa. A typical pack of 300 meters is worth between 4 and 5 US$ in Kisangani, making rattan three to four times more profitable than timber.

Value hardly known

DR Congo's 135 million hectares of natural forest cover 62% of its territory and make up half of Africa's rain forest - the second largest in the world. But no professional forester has been trained in the last ten years, according to a recent report by CIFOR, CIRAD and the World Bank, demonstrating the near impossibility of quantifying the economic value of forest goods and services in the DR Congo.

"Our forest is a resource in the service of Congo's development," says Professor Jean-Pierre Maté of UNIKIS, adding: "At the same time, it is the second biggest ‘lung' of the planet." In conjunction with CIFOR, UNIKIS bears responsibility for the forestry programme of an EU-funded FAO operation in support of reactivating agricultural and forestry research in DR Congo, known by its French acronym as REAFOR.

"Without knowledge, we don't have the instruments to develop the forest in a sustainable way," Maté says. Afrormosia is a good example. The regeneration of this tree, very sought after by timber companies, presents difficulties, for reasons yet unknown. The research of one of REAFOR's PhD-students, Faustin Boyemba, can provide the answer, and be a tool for the setting up of rules for Afrormosia logging.

Striking the right balance between exploitation and conservation is the arduous task facing Congo's foresters. "We need brains to do that!", Maté exclaims. For him, the 13 PhD's and 35 Master-students being trained under REAFOR, should be the core of an incipient national forestry elite.

Meanwhile, the rehabilitation of dorms and a lab in Yoko, a computer centre at UNIKIS' campus and a residence in the neighbouring reserve of Masako, plus the provision of state of the art equipment - including GPS, weighing and measuring gear and even a speedboat - are creating an environment in which researchers will be able to do their best work.

Making noise

By the end of the afternoon, Frank Bapeamoni has set up a makeshift lab behind his dorm in Yoko's base camp, where he inventories the catch of the day. Consulting Birds of Western Africa, 2004, he concludes that he has caught an Alcedo quadribrachys, or shining-blue kingfisher.

The forest is dynamic in its structure, composition and functioning, he teaches. And, it is not only about trees. Birds are part and parcel of the forest. Its structure depends on them. But to make sure that the needs of birds are taken into account, you need to know what these are: this is the objective of his research.

According to Frank's colleague Jean-Marie Kahindo, scientific knowledge is not an end in itself. It should guide decision-makers. "I am going to make some noise to make sure they listen," he says. In the case of rattan, it is important that the local population listens too - it is in their best interest to preserve the forest. "After all," Kahindo says, "the forest belongs to the communities."

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
“Birds are the true farmers of the forest,” Frank Bapeamoni