The Congo Basin is home to the world’s second-largest rainforest, making it an integral part of regulating carbon dioxide levels and, in turn, mitigating atmospheric heating. For the Central African Republic (CAR), protecting its dense forests places it at the epicenter of a conflict between conservation efforts, indigenous community rights, and the impacts of economic activity linked to logging and agriculture.
Within the border region of the Republic of the Congo, CAR, and Cameroon lives the Bayaka people, who has called this area home for more than 30,000 years. Their traditions and way of life, which are deeply intertwined with the forest, have come under increasing threat because of deforestation. A proposed solution that balances conservation efforts with that of indigenous human rights is the creation of “community forests”, an arrangement where indigenous people with a deep connection to the land work with industries and rural residents to act as stewards of remote, endangered ecosystems.
Several thousand community forests exist around the world, but what made the community forest in CAR unique was that it was established within a commercial logging zone. Rainforest Foundation UK, an indigenous-rights advocacy group, and local campaigners from the charity Maison de l’Enfant et de la Femme Pygmées assisted the Bayaka community within this zone, along with three forest-dependent Bantu villages nearby, to create a detailed map of their traditional home within the forest, totaling 37,000 acres. The data proves their customary ownership of the land, which is a significant boon for future legal disputes, as many Bayaka communities lack formal documentation proving their claims to the lands they work.
These community forests have the benefit not only of protecting endangered trees and wildlife but also of providing economic alternatives to logging. Non-timber products such as honey and shade-grown cocoa, cooking oil extracted from moabi tree seeds, and other local produce provide additional income for communities living in or on the periphery of Congolese rainforests. Inter-tribal solidarity can also be encouraged through collaborative economic projects, such as those between the Bayaka and local Bantu people pooling their produce together and using the profits to fund education initiatives for each other.
Placing community forests within logging zones is challenging, especially for a country like CAR where timber lobbying holds immense sway and the logging industry provides a sizeable chunk of national GDP. Local inhabitants can exploit their position and band together to develop a stronger political unit that can push back against the timber industry and make greater demands on government for assistance and funding.
Sadly, the community forest in the CAR was closed down by the end of 2019, not even a year old. The country’s pro-logging lobby succeeded in reclaiming profitable territory, but members of the Maison de l’Enfant charity intend to combat the ruling in the courts and have the community forest reinstated.