Poverty and conservation in DRC – what role for a network?

A new network being set up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo aims to bring organisations together on poverty and conservation issues.

24 August 2014
Participants at the meeting establish how their NGO works with communities in DRC (Photo: Alessandra Guiliani/IIED)

Participants at the meeting establish how their NGO works with communities in DRC (Photo: Alessandra Guiliani/IIED)

"We cannot save great apes without saving local communities, and vice versa," says Dominique Bikaba, executive director of Strong Roots, an organisation that focuses on conservation and sustainable development in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the natural home to the endangered Eastern Lowland Gorilla. It is difficult to think of a country where this phrase could be more appropriate than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

DRC is a vast country with an enormous wealth of natural resources. Its forests contain abundant biodiversity, including many endangered and endemic species. DRC is particularly significant for primate conservation, hosting three out of the four great apes species: gorilla, chimpanzees and bonobos, with the last of this triumvirate living in the wild only in this country. 

However, habitat destruction and bushmeat hunting pose a severe threat to biodiversity in DRC, and in particular to the survival of the endangered species that inhabit it.

Huge social challenges lie behind these threats. While DRC is considered the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, its citizens are among the poorest. Years of civil war, weak governance, widespread corruption and financial mismanagement have resulted in political insecurity, lack of infrastructure and mounting human pressure on biodiversity.

Helping close the distance

Recognising these concerns, IIED's biodiversity team has worked over the past year to understand whether setting up a national DRC Poverty and Conservation Learning Group (PCLG) could help address some of these challenges. PCLG is an international network, coordinated by IIED, for promoting dialogue and fostering learning on the links between biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction.

This work started when I attended the Great Apes Summit in September 2013, and I had the opportunity to talk to some of the DRC-based poverty and conservation practitioners. What I perceived throughout those discussions was a keen interest in the work done over the years by the PCLG at the international and national level (in Uganda and Cameroon), to help people share information and lessons learnt, provide a space (physical and virtual) were people could meet, and develop joint action on priority issues. And the message I came away with was that a similar forum would be very welcome in DRC, where no network fulfilled this role.

A wider consultation phase thus began aimed at establishing relations with more organisations working on great apes conservation and poverty alleviation in DRC, and understanding these organisations' priorities. Next, a two-day meeting was organised in May 2014 in Kinshasa, which was attended by around 25 people. Participants included representatives from the big international NGOs (Fauna and Flora International, African Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society and IUCN), national and regional NGOs (Strong Roots, The Gorilla Organization and the Bonobo Conservation Initiative) and government agencies (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN)).
The workshop addressed several distinct themes, including the need for a space where DRC-based organisations could share their practical experiences in linking ape conservation and poverty alleviation, particularly regarding which approaches have worked, and why, in trying to link the two. Another session at the workshop explored relevant national processes relating to poverty and conservation.

These sessions were followed by discussions between participants to explore:

  • The need for a DRC PCLG chapter to continue the dialogue and lesson learning the meeting initiated;
  • How this network should be structured;
  • Specific activities a DRC-based PCLG chapter could undertake, in both the short and longer term, to bring about the changes needed at a local and national level to improve poverty and conservation policy and practice.

Where are we now?

We have already implemented one action point coming out of the meeting: setting up a DRC mailing list. This mailing list aims to facilitate the exchange of information between poverty and conservation practitioners in DRC who face, among many other challenges, the difficulty of communicating in such a vast country.

As a next step, we have launched a new consultation phase to further explore and firm up the commitments and ideas brought forward at the meeting. During the meeting, the participants clearly expressed their desire for the establishment of a DRC-based PCLG, but we are now asking organisations to confirm their commitments, and provide more thoughts on how this group should work and which actions it should tackle. These are the questions we have asked them, but we are interested in your feedback too, especially if you are working in DRC:

•    Is a DRC-based PCLG a good idea?
•    Would your organisation like to become a member?
•    What are the key activities in which the group should engage?  

This consultation phase will end on 10 September 2014, and at that point we will develop a way forward for the group.

Alessandra Giuliani (alessandra.giuliani@iied.org) is a researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group.