The Usala Corridor - a Win-Win for Gorillas and People

Categories: Journal, Ausgabe 68, Protective Measures, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Grauer's Gorilla

The team trekked seven days through the rain forest to reach the village of Rama. (© GRACE)

There are very few communities left in the world that require a difficult, seven-day trek through dense jungle and across rushing rivers to reach. Deep in the rainforest of the Congo Basin, such a place exists - Rama. And if we hurry, we can keep the towering primary forest around it intact and protect a corridor for gorillas between two biodiversity hotspots while securing permanent land rights for local communities.

The "Road to Rama"

In December of 2023, a team from GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education), the Union of Gorilla Conservation Associations for Community Development in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (UGADEC), and the Usala Gorilla Reserve (RGU) made the arduous multi-day trek through the rainforest to meet with the elders and members of the Rama community and surrounding areas to confirm their support for the creation of a 284,000-acre Usala Corridor community forest concession.

The traditional chief of this region, Mwami Eric Mwaka Eliba, had been trying to protect this land for a decade, knowing it would benefit the communities living in the area. He approached UGADEC, RGU, and GRACE for help with financing and navigating the complicated, almost 'serpentine', legal process for creating a community forest concession.

What is so important about the Usala Corridor?

The Congo Basin, spanning six countries, removes an estimated 1.1 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually. At more than 700 million acres, it is the world's second-largest tropical rainforest behind the Amazon. Perhaps most significantly, the Congo Basin is the world's largest carbon sink, absorbing more carbon than it releases, whereas recent research has shown that the Amazon Basin is now a net carbon emitter due to industrial-scale logging and agricultural development. There is no solution to climate change that does not involve saving the Congo Basin's forests.

This is also one of the most biodiverse regions of Africa, with many threatened and endemic species including forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards, golden cats, and more. In eastern D. R. Congo, Maiko National Park and Tayna Nature Reserve are two great ape strongholds of global significance. Maiko and Tayna are separated by an area known as the Usala Forest.

There is a wave of deforestation pulsing westward toward the Tayna Nature Reserve and the lush forests beyond. This growing human population acts as an impenetrable barrier for wildlife between Tayna Nature Reserve and Virunga National Park to the east. If further deforestation is allowed to encircle the Tayna Nature Reserve, the reserve is at risk of becoming an isolated biological island, also cut off from the much larger Maiko National Park.

At the moment, most of the forest in the proposed Usala Corridor is intact. The best and most cost-effective way to preserve important ecological functions is to protect the existing forest. It can take centuries to regenerate a rainforest, and the ecological complexity may never be the same. There are very few places on Earth where it is still possible to protect such a massive area with staggering biodiversity, and the time to act is now.

Why is GRACE involved in creating this corridor?

Our motto at GRACE is "a future for gorillas, based on community." We know that our work to protect forests and gorillas cannot succeed without the leadership of local communities.

The GRACE Grauer's gorilla sanctuary, which began operations in 2008 and is staffed by a stellar all-Congolese team, has given us a permanent presence in the area. As the rescued gorillas in our care rely on us, we continue our work even through Ebola outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic, and when insecurity affects the area. We are the only international conservation organisation working in this important biodiversity hotspot (although we welcome new partnerships) and our permanent presence has allowed trust to build between us and the local communities.

Because of this trust, after a decade of trying to protect the Usala Forest, Mwami Eric Mwaka Eliba approached us for assistance in creating a community-managed conservation area that would benefit his people. With generous funding from the Rainforest Trust and other donors, GRACE is partnering with UGADEC and RGU to create the Tayna-Usala Conservation Corridor by establishing three adjacent Local Community Forest Concessions (CFCL).

Local Community Forest Concessions (CFCLs) - a mechanism for community empowerment and conservation

Until recently, there was no accessible legal mechanism for people in rural areas of Democratic Republic of the Congo to own their land despite customary tenure that has been recognized locally for generations. This leaves communities vulnerable to powerful logging or mining interests and migration into the area of people fleeing unrest or extraction industries elsewhere in the region. As these communities rely almost exclusively on small-scale agriculture and forest resources for their survival, they have to take action quickly to protect their rights and their lands, or their ability to feed their families will be compromised.

A relatively new land conservation mechanism is making it possible for them to do so. Local Community Forest Concessions, or CFCLs, offer secure land tenure to communities in exchange for managing their forests sustainably. This will allow these communities to continue economic and subsistence activities within the forest with the oversight of a locally elected management body that ensures the activities are not detrimental to the overall health of the forest.

There are numerous ways CFCLs benefit communities and the planet:

By granting communities the right to own and manage their forests, the balance of control shifts from distant authorities to those who live closest to the land. People living in or near the forest are the most invested in its protection and are the most impacted by its destruction.

Intact forests stabilize the local (and global) climate, protect water supplies, and ensure an ongoing supply of the resources people need to survive. The mechanism allows sustainable economic activities to continue, reducing poverty and offering an alternative to illegal hunting, illegal logging, and destructive mining practices.

Communities will continue to have access to important non-timber forest products (NTFPS) such as medicines and edible plants, enhancing nutrition, health, resilience, and food security during times of instability.

The planning process, which includes zoning for different activities, takes into account traditional uses and customs in addition to setting aside sensitive ecosystems that need higher levels of protection.

The CFCL mechanism empowers communities, protects biodiversity, and offers a pathway to sustainable livelihoods. Each concession in DRC can include up to 50,000 hectares of forest. The Usala Corridor will consist of three concessions, protecting a significant amount of forest long into the future.

Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) - a human rights-based approach

A crucial part of creating the CFCLs is getting the agreement of everyone who has a claim to the lands or will be impacted by the new concessions. The gold standard process for this is known as Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC).

Free: People cannot be coerced, through threats or financial incentives, into offering their support for the project. They must freely agree to it.

Prior: Stakeholders must be consulted and freely give their consent before the concession is established.

Informed: All parties must fully understand the legal structure of the agreement and how the new concession will impact their lives and be given the opportunity to provide feedback on the process and design in their own time.

Consent: This is not a top-down process where land is being taken away and put under the control of a government authority with little input from locals. This is a community-driven process that must benefit the people affected by it, and the people affected must agree to the creation of the forest concession or it will not move forward. Consensus must be reached among traditional landowners and consent must be given in a way that is meaningful to them, such as through public meetings and ceremonies.

In such a vast and inaccessible region, this is no small task. Teams from GRACE and UGADEC have canvassed communities across the Usala region and spoken with more than a thousand stakeholders in towns and villages so far. Rather than simply making the information available and expecting individuals to find it, our teams are proactively disseminating the information in person and in the most effective ways possible.

These intrepid teams go above and beyond to ensure a thorough and respectful process. The original plan was to hold meetings in the administrative center of the Usala region in Bukucha, a one-day walk from the nearest road. However, through a series of stakeholder meetings, the team found that the traditional seat of authority was in Rama, a much more remote village that requires trekking through dense forest and crossing numerous rivers to reach.

Rather than take the easy way and confer only with the leadership in Bukucha, the team insisted on taking the difficult journey by foot to speak with the traditional leaders in Rama as well. The integrity and dedication of these individuals continue to shine in every aspect of this process

Connectivity and hope for gorillas and people in eastern DRC

The Usala Corridor project is a sustainable and culturally appropriate approach to great ape conservation that will protect biodiversity and help mitigate climate change long into the future. It will establish land rights for local communities, increase local stewardship of the land, and help prevent the fragmentation of gorilla populations and other critically endangered species.

It will need pro-active 'aggressive', multi-layered action on the part of the entire world to address the great challenges of our warming planet. Despite being a region that is largely ignored in the media, the Congo Basin is a place of significance for everyone. We cannot control the climate without it, and we rely on it for the very air we breathe.

Mark Jordahl

Special thanks to Paluku Mbusa Omer, Maneno Kakule Ndavugha, and Mitondo Hamisi Alain who undertook the arduous trek to Rama for the FPIC outreach. Important support for this project was also received from GRACE DRC Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke, RGU Coordinator Papy Zephirin Mahamudi Kabaya, and GRACE Usala Project Manager Dominique Tresor Valyananzi.