The Restoration Initiative: A Central African Republic story
Villagers unite around community forest project in the Central African Republic (CAR)
Locals are turning to the TRI CAR project for help securing approval on a long-awaited community forest. If successful, the forest would be the first to receive official recognition, while bolstering support for future restoration efforts.
The CAR is known for its natural beauty, incredible wildlife and an abundance of natural resources, which serve to sustain the vast majority of its local populations. Yet, it is also known as a country plagued by decades of instability and slow economic growth that has led to food insecurity and extreme poverty. A constellation of factors makes forest resources, such as meat from wild animals, timber, firewood and land for small-scale agriculture, highly valuable. Without access to alternative sources of food and income, survival for many is linked to the proliferation of unsustainable farming practices. This day-to-day reality is the backdrop that makes FLR activities, which support ongoing improvements to ecological systems while enhancing human well-being, of particular relevance to the CAR.
The TRI CAR project, which has only been in full operation since November 2020, spent much of 2021 identifying restoration opportunities while securing the trust and support of local people and institutions. They presented maps and restoration plans that allowed different forest user groups, such as Indigenous peoples, youth, women and traders, to ask questions about the TRI CAR project, what it will accomplish and, importantly, how it stands to impact their lives. This exhaustive dialogue initiated by the TRI CAR project is an example of participatory forest management (PFM), which encompasses bottom-up planning with multiple stakeholders, especially vulnerable groups, across all levels of the restoration process.
A highly anticipated community forest
Village chiefs and prominent community leaders from the clustered villages of Pissa, Bombé, Boyama, Boyali and Bongombé in the southwest of the country have long sought to protect nearby forests and surrounding environments. It was through in-person meetings at the project sites that the TRI CAR project first learned of the coordinated efforts among three villages to establish a community forest. Community forests bestow locals with long-term rights to use and manage forest resources and further empower forest users to reap maximum benefits to their livelihoods. The villages even provided the TRI CAR project with official town hall documents dating back to 2014. However, despite successive attempts, there is no record of follow-up from the administrative authorities. After nearly a decade of unsuccessful inquiries, there was excitement and relief with the prospect of the TRI CAR project taking the lead on the community forest application. Recognizing the significance of this village-led initiative, the TRI CAR project aims to promote the community forest project through the financing of a perimeter for restoration activities in the Pissa area and its outlying villages. The TRI CAR team would also support the development of a management plan for the community forest – which is a prerequisite for forestry regulations – while acting as an independent third party to advise and mediate as villages negotiate their respective user rights. Community forest management engages locals in collaborative conservation, which aligns local interests with long-term restoration objectives in a way that also supports the various types of life found in these forest ecosystems. The villagers hope to see their forests dedicated to the conservation of plants and animals while still allowing for sustainable levels of hunting within a designated buffer zone. They also want to prevent unsustainable industrial logging and artisanal logging – where individual, small-scale millers harvest trees for the domestic market with or without permits – from taking over as they have in the past. If the application is successful, the community forest project will cover over 5000 ha and will be the first officially allocated community forest project in the country.
Reciprocity and trust at work
In the short time the TRI CAR project has been active, the arrangements surrounding the prospective community forest highlight the remarkable progress on the ground and demonstrate a climate of trust among the collaborating villages and TRI. In many ways, the dialogue around the community forest facilitated rapid headway towards raising interest and support for forthcoming restoration efforts, including the identification of multiple areas for restoration as well as potential sustainable income-generating activities.
The seemingly straightforward task of identifying restoration areas, however, required its own diplomatic touch, and PFM principles were used again and again as villagers voiced concerns about sites earmarked for restoration. In order to build trust and promote transparency, the TRI CAR project invited members from all villages to participate in boundary surveys, in which they walked the lands together. The decision to invite these companion surveyors – ten individuals from each village – was extremely successful. In addition to collaboratively mapping out 500 ha, this exercise fostered engagement between community village members and allowed the TRI CAR project to benefit from local knowledge regarding land tenure issues and management practices. It also increased interest in the project among companion surveyors and within their respective communities, resulting in consent from the locals. Insight from the companion surveyors allowed for the sidestepping of potential conflicts regarding boundaries that – if insensitively managed – could jeopardize the TRI CAR project’s future restoration efforts.
Ultimately, these 500 ha open possible paths ahead for restoration, which include natural regeneration where trees self-seed and spread naturally, assisted natural regeneration which entails manual tree plantings, and agroforestry which involves the incorporation of trees around and among crops and pasturelands. These future restoration activities are rife with potential to increase food security, provide animal habitat and improve livelihoods through sustainable use of natural resources. Equipping the villages with additional skills to better manage their forests, discover alternative sources of income and adapt to arising challenges all but assures restoration progress. However, it is only possible with the incorporation of PFM and behaviours that foster mutual respect and trust among those involved. These incremental yet essential steps illustrate the groundswell efforts of the villages and the TRI CAR project to restore forests while bolstering community well-being.
The villagers hope to see their forests dedicated to the conservation of plants and animals while still allowing for sustainable levels of hunting within a designated buffer zone.
This story is from TRI Year in Review 2021