Hidden in the thick primary rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a few silverbacks and a host of small, fiery eyes. The Baraka, one of the last families of mountain gorillas, are welcoming a happy event out of sight: a young male snuggled in his mother's arms. A new victory for this critically endangered species, for the entire Virunga National Park and above all for the fight against global warming.
In this protected area, supported by the European Union, 350 gorilla beringei beringei, 500 elephants and 2,500 hippos have returned to the area. This is proof that the strategy to preserve biodiversity implemented since 1988 is bearing fruit.
With 68% of the investments in the area between 2015 and 2029, the European Union is the main donor to the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN). In addition to Virunga, the Salonga and Garamba national parks, the Upemba-Kundelengu complex and the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve are benefiting from the €140 million mobilised by the European Development Fund.
The EU is so committed because it sees the DRC as a “solution country” to the challenges of global warming. The Congo Basin is home to the world’s second largest primary rainforest after the Amazon. Capable of capturing 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, this carbon sink is the planet’s main lung. It may be our last line of defence against catastrophe.
But in 2019, the equivalent of a football pitch of Congolese forest disappeared every six seconds according to Global Forest Watch. The cause: a greedy and sometimes illegal timber industry, harmful slash-and-burn agriculture and the growing need for highly polluting charcoal (“makala”).
The European Union is working hand in hand with the DRC government in all these areas. “We are like a rugby pack”, says Jean-Marc Châtaigner, EU ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “All pushing together behind a Congolese team leader.”
In close cooperation with the ICCN, the EU finances numerous projects in “protected areas”. These are areas that are inaccessible to humans and are managed to “ensure the long-term conservation of nature and the associated ecosystem services and cultural values” as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Half of the funding is dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity, while the other half is dedicated to the development of the surrounding communities. In Virunga alone, 2,500 direct jobs, 4,200 jobs in connected SMEs and 15,000 indirect jobs have been created.
“This shows that it is possible to reconcile the preservation of biodiversity with human development, including access to education, health, electricity and economic development”, says Jean-Marc Châtaigner. “It’s a win-win situation, both for the population and for the future of the planet.”
In this country where less than 10% of the population has direct access to electricity, the European Union is financing a virtuous circle. The first step was to invest in hydroelectric energy and create power stations and a network that now brings electricity to the city of Goma.
This encourages the creation of businesses such as this chocolate factory, which was born out of a sad situation. Until then, despite being a major producer of cocoa beans, only imported bars were available in the DRC. Now the team is selling its “chocolate made where cocoa grows”, using 100% renewable energy.
In Garamba National Park, the EU has funded farmer field schools, educational beehives and, most importantly, two solar mini-grids that provide renewable energy to 1,000 households, 140 small businesses and 11 public services.
The electrification and revitalisation of the economic fabric makes it possible to send more children to school*. And the EU intends to make them the main ambassadors of biodiversity. At a school not far from the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, the children are sitting tight, watching a speaker draw trees on the board. CO2, oxygen, environment... in a few hours, they are humming their new credo. “Batela zamba, tokobatela zamba, toloni nzete, tokobatela zamba.” Let’s protect our forests, let’s plant trees.
With the support of the EU, the FORETS project (Training, Research, and Environment in Tshopo) aims to plant 1.5 million trees in the region. And now the first eddy covariance flux tower overlooks the canopy. Here the EU is involved in a precise study of Congolese trees, which already harbour 8% of the world's forest carbon.
This natural heritage should enable the DRC to take full advantage of the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), created in 2005 to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In practice, companies offset their CO2 emissions by compensating landowners who preserve biodiversity: these are known as “carbon credits”. These sources of revenue could contribute to the financial autonomy of the Virunga National Park planned for 2025.
Until then, the EU is celebrating its successes. In July 2021, UNESCO removed the gigantic Salonga National Park from the List of World Heritage in Danger, praising the efforts of international donors and “the greatly improved management of the park, particularly with regard to the strengthening of anti-poaching measures”. Among the eco-guards are several dozen women. “Women create intimate bonds much greater than those of the men”, explains ICCN director Olivier Mushiete. “If we are committed to involving local communities in protected areas, it seems to me essential to have women involved.”
Whether in fish farming, green “makala” production or agroforestry, many women also benefit from funding from the European “Environment and Sustainable Agriculture” programme. “This whole forest is mine. I started with seeds and now it’s a forest”, explains Bébé Lumingu in Ntsio. Between the acacia trees, known for their ability to absorb CO2, she plants manioc when she is not raising her edible caterpillars.
Another effective solution to ensure future food security. If nothing is done, temperatures are expected to rise faster in Africa than in the rest of the world. And if soil degradation continues at this rate, half of the continent’s agricultural land could be unusable by 2050.
*While enrolment rates have jumped since 2000, it is estimated that more than a quarter of all children are denied an education.