Guardians of the Forest: Collaborating to Protect the Rainforests of the Congo

Every year more than 40 million acres of forest are lost. A sports field-sized area is deforested every minute of everyday, generating in the process more than fifteen percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, a single tree left standing has the potential to sequester roughly 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year and provide unquantifiable gift of food, medicine, water purification, climate stabilization, mental health, and more. Despite international attention, global deforestation driven by industrial agriculture, cattle ranching, mining, and fossil fuel extraction continues at an alarming rate, amplifying the climate crisis and imperiling the Earth and all its residence.

World Resources Institute

Map of Global Tree Cover Loss, 2000-2012. Photo via World Resources Institute.

Hope remains however, held in the hands of the thousands of Indigenous communities who live and thrive in the great forests of the world. Across the globe they are fighting to protect the forests and their diverse cultures, implementing place-based solutions that are socially and ecologically appropriate. In the process, these communities provide daily proof of the power of, and need for, another way of relating to the Earth.

Photo by Emily Arasim.

The Congo Basin of Central Africa holds one of the largest rainforests in the world, second only to the mighty Amazon. It represents more than 60% of all of the rainforests in Africa, functioning as the source of life for a vast swath of the continent, and as a center of balance and health for the Earth’s climate as a whole.

Indigenous Woman Wearing Her Shirt from Feb Workshop

Photo via Neema Namadamu.

For the last year, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN International) has had the honor of collaborating with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the ‘Women for Forests and Fossil Fuel/Mega Dam/Mining Resistance’ program. Organizing focuses on the protection of the Itombwe forest and the support of the communities living within it, whose cultural and ecologic heritage is severely threatened by exploitative logging, mining, and agricultural practices. Work is based in South Kivu Province in the eastern part of the country, home to two very important forest sites of unquantifiable diversity, the Itombwe Nature Reserve (RNI) and the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB), both of which are critically threatened by extractive industries.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Kivu Province outlined in red.Via Google Maps

Neema Namadamu, Founder of the Synergy of Congolese Women’s Associations (SAFECO), spearheads the collaboration through her work as the WECAN DR Congo Coordinator. Trainings and communication efforts designed by Neema and WECAN Executive Director, Osprey Orielle Lake, are the core of WECAN International’s work to support Indigenous women in the region, who, as the longtime stewards of the land, have begun working to oppose the destruction of the forest and their culture.

Neema Namadamu speaks at the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit. Photo by Lori Waselchuk.

In June 2014, WECAN International worked with Neema to prepare and actualize the first WECAN- DR Congo Regional Climate Solution Training. The program began with an intensive five-week online course, engaging local leaders in a range of topics, from why women are central to climate and environmental solutions, to action plans for climate justice, forest conservation, Rights of Nature and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and on the grounds solutions.

Following the online intensive, Neema and her team of leaders conducted a series of hands-on workshops with women and men from eight villages in and around the Itombwe forest. The training included an overview of threats to the Itombwe, regional ethnobotanical knowledge, solar oven construction, holistic forest conservation methods, women and climate change, and local leadership in forest protection.

Local Leader Teaching About Medicinal Properties of Trees. Photo via Neema Namadamu.

Using the analysis and tools created during WECAN’s online sessions, participants created a place-based climate action plan to addresses regional socio-ecologic need, move forest protection forward, and empower women in their role as key environmental stakeholders and transformative leaders.

The series of meetings and workshops culminated in the composition and distribution of a declaration calling for a nationwide movement to protect the Itombwe and other rainforest in the country.

“A secret treasure is lying quietly hidden in the bosom of the Indigenous women of the Itombwe forest. We now have a plan of protection and action for the forest and the people who live there in great wisdom and humility,” explained Neema.

Photo via Neema Namadamu

WECAN International is very excited that this is just the beginning of the work in the Itombwe rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with plans underway for follow up trainings and projects ranging from tree planting and clean stoves construction, to trainings on community organizing and influencing policies at the local, national, regional and international levels.

Neema Namadamu (SAFECO Founder & WECAN DRC Coordinator) and Osprey Orielle Lake (WECAN Founder & Executive Director) together during a meeting this month.

Explore More

  • Learn more about Neema Namadamu and her work: namadamu.com
  • Help us keep up this work for climate justice and solutions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and across the world, donate here: wecaninternational.org/donate

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Blog by Emily Arasim, WECAN Special Projects & Communications Coordinator

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