Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is renowned for its biodiversity, including Grauer’s gorilla — an endemic subspecies — and around 350 bird species. The area is also home to the Batwa people, who are highly dependent on its forests for their livelihoods and cultural traditions.
But forests in this region are embattled by long-running civil strife, poverty, and market demand for materials from minerals to charcoal. Efforts to protect these forests are challenged by conservation’s mixed record: Kahuzi-Biega’s expansion in the 1970s forced the displacement of thousands of local people, turning them into conservation refugees and sowing distrust in conservation initiatives, especially those led by “outsiders”, whether the central government or foreign NGOs. Mining companies and other extractive industries further complicate the situation by exacerbating pressure on community forests.
One of the local organizations leading efforts to overcome these challenges is Strong Roots Congo, which was co-founded by Dominique Bikaba in 2009. Strong Roots Congo puts the needs of local people at the center of its strategy to protect endangered forests and wildlife in eastern DRC. These efforts include helping local communities and Indigenous peoples secure collective land tenure, restoring native vegetation to create a habitat corridor, and supporting education and the strengthening of sustainable livelihoods at the village level.
“Strong Roots’ approach to conservation is bottom-up, collaborative, and inclusive,” Bikaba told Mongabay in a recent interview. “We learned long ago that conservation efforts are not sustainable without the cooperation and engagement of the local communities who live in the areas in which conservation projects are taking place. In some cases, ecosystem conservation and community sustainable development can seem at odds with each other, but we have found that both can often go hand in hand.”
Bikaba’s perspective on how to engage local stakeholders in driving outcomes that benefit both communities and the environment is rooted in his personal experience: His community was expelled from their lands for Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the 1970s. But he maintained a connection to the forest through his grandmother and as he grew older, he began working in park management and learning about Grauer’s gorilla. He also saw firsthand the impact of gorilla tourism in terms of generating local livelihoods, but also the costs from human-wildlife conflict in the form of crop losses. Additionally, he was keenly aware of the conflict between top-down conservation initiatives and local people.
“The vision was to overcome the conflict between park management and local communities by creating training opportunities for community members, working on community development for food security and education, and promoting livelihood activities to reduce the rampant poverty within communities surrounding the park,” he said. “Strong Roots is helping community members secure their traditional forestlands for conservation. The collective land tenure they are securing enables them to conserve the rich biodiversity on their traditional lands while improving their livelihoods and perpetuating their cultural identities and rituals across generations.”
Bikaba spoke about the context of conservation in eastern DRC during a conversation with Mongabay.