Smallholders in transition in DR Congo - In conversation with Alphonse Maindo

Smallholders in transition in DR Congo - In conversation with Alphonse Maindo

DR Congo - 14 June, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

The Bafwasende landscape in the Tshopo Province of DR Congo has a forest cover of 98% and very high poverty rates. A few years ago, young people were eager to leave the area, going to cities to look for work. Recently, however, this outmigration has slowed down, because young people see new opportunities to earn money as smallholders, according to Alphonse Maindo, director of Tropenbos DR Congo. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about the future of smallholder farming and community forestry in the Bafwasende landscape.

Can you describe a typical smallholder in the Bafwasende landscape?

Indigenous people often practice slash and burn agriculture, on plots that average about one hectare per household. They cultivate mainly rice, cassava, maize, peanuts and banana. They may sell some surplus for income to cover expenditures, but it is mainly for subsistence use. They harvest natural resources from the forest, such as honey, rattan and bush meat, and may sell trees to artisanal loggers. In recent years we have seen an increasing number of people from neighbouring provinces moving into the area, who are introducing new forms of land use. They are cultivating perennials such as cocoa in agroforestry systems. Their farms are larger, between five and ten hectares per household. And their idea is not to produce for subsistence but for the market. These migrants are also engaged in small scale artisanal logging, using chainsaws.

How does the influx of migrant smallholders influence the indigenous population of shifting cultivators?

We see that a transformation is happening. Some young people in indigenous communities are starting to adopt land-use practices introduced by migrants, and some have started chainsaw milling. Some are building houses with bricks instead of sticks and mud, and roofs of metal sheets instead of leaves. We see them purchasing motorcycles and cars, and solar panels and generators for electricity, all with money from farming and artisanal logging.

Are some young people leaving the area?

A few years ago, most young people were leaving the landscape, going to cities to look for work. However, most failed to improve their lives. Even when they were schooled, they couldn’t get jobs. Now migration to the cities has slowed down. Young people are staying in the countryside because they see new opportunities. The possibilities for smallholders to earn money are increasing. They can improve their livelihoods. They can have access to electricity, they can even watch movies through satellite connections. These are the things they used to be looking for in cities.

Artboard 2 copy.pngIf current trends continue, what will the landscape look like, 30 years from now?

There is a risk that we will lose a lot of forest, simply because people are going to cut trees and expand farms. We need a better regulatory framework to guide development and stabilize the forest frontier. It is very important that the authorities start implementing the land use plans that have been developed for Tshopo province and Bafwasende.

Could community forestry play a role in stabilizing the forest frontier?

Yes, these days more and more communities receive community forest concession titles from the government, giving them formal rights to their forests. These can provide incentives to maintain the forest. There are possibilities to earn money with forest entrepreneurship, for example through artisanal logging, and in non-timber forest product trade. Stabilizing the forest frontier will prevent that people lose access to the forest resources they depend on. Later, there may be increased possibilities for communities to earn money from tourism, or even from carbon credits.

Community forestry is a collective practice. When incomes from agriculture rise, will smallholders still be interested in collective activities?

The collective, and solidarity between community members, remain extremely important in these villages. It is what children learn from the elders. At the same time, we see that smallholders increasingly prefer to invest in private over collective practices. We tried to support community-based agroforestry activities, but it was a big failure. Community members were not interested. We learned that they preferred to develop individual agroforestry farms.

Is the collective tradition disappearing?

When young people watch television, they see another way of living that prioritizes individual benefits. They are caught in between those two worldviews. But, overall, you still see strong elements of communal traditions that run very deep. There is a local expression, “If you are rich alone, you are under threat.” This is a warning that if you don’t share, people will try to take your money from you. People are also afraid that others will use witchcraft against them. In the villages and cities, you see that richer people pay for the schooling of poorer people. They take care of people who need healthcare. I don’t think this tradition will go away, at least not in the short term.

Is this collectivist tradition important for community forestry?

Yes, people engage in community forestry as a contribution to the collective. They know that it benefits the community as a whole, for example by generating money to build a school, a health facility or a road. And maintaining the forest is also considered important to sustain animal populations close to the village, for hunting. So, community forestry depends to some extent on this collectivist tradition. This is different for agriculture and agroforestry. In local traditions, the forest belongs to the community, but as soon as you clear part of the forest for farming or agroforestry, it becomes yours. Even when you leave it to regenerate, it does not return to the collective. It stays in your family.

quoteAM.pngHow do young people perceive community forestry?

It seems that young people are not so interested, but I think this is primarily because they don’t have a strong voice in community decision-making structures. They are considered as the cadets. They are not taken that seriously, and the same goes for the women. It is the older men who take all the decisions. In some communities we have actively supported the involvement of youth and women in training courses related to community forestry, and there we saw that they would take an active role, committing their time, energy and ideas to community forestry.

What do you think the children of today’s smallholders will be doing in 30 years’ time?

I think most of them will still be smallholders. The way I see how cities are developing in the area, I don’t think they will offer enough employment opportunities. So far, they are mostly causing disillusions among the young people that migrate there. The key is to develop resilient and sustainable agriculture. We need to innovate. We need to support agroforestry, so that smallholders no longer have to shift their plots. These agroforestry systems include perennials as well as food crops, livestock and poultry.

There is debate between proponents of agroecology and proponents of agricultural intensification about the type of agriculture that best fits development and conservation objectives. What is your position?

My position is clear. It is possible to produce more on lands that are currently being farmed by using natural methods, like organic fertilizers and the smart use of trees and nitrogen fixing plants in agroforestry systems. Agricultural intensification is often accompanied with some form of land concentration, transforming smallholders into poor agricultural workers. It also requires more chemicals, which will impact the environment. But if needed to feed a growing population, maybe it is possible to develop smart combinations of agroecology and agricultural intensification.

What role can Tropenbos DR Congo play to ensure that future generations of smallholders in the Bafwasende landscape can make a living, without more deforestation?

First, we should produce and share knowledge about resilient and sustainable agriculture — not only based on scientific research, but also on the knowledge of indigenous people and migrants coming to the area. Second, we should capacitate smallholders through training. Third, we should try to improve policies and practices of other stakeholders. This includes banks and financial institutions, who play a key role to increase smallholder access to credit, which they need to invest in sustainable practices. And we should support people to sit together and develop a common vision for the landscape, with active engagement of youth, women, indigenous people, migrants, companies, religious leaders and traditional chiefs. In the end, the future of the landscape is a collective responsibility.  

Photo Alphonse.jpgAlphonse Maindo Monga Ngonga is the director of Tropenbos DR Congo, and professor at the University of Kisangani. Trained as a political scientist, he was also the director of the Center for Political and Social Research in Africa, and honorary dean of the Faculty of Social, Administrative and Political Sciences at the University of Kisangani.