19.04.2021. “Conservation is only possible if we have a good relationship with the communities.” José Blanchard BOKANDZA could not have made his approach clearer: “The communities are the first custodians of the forest. Because they are the ones who depend on it in their daily life.”
When he joined in 2018, something changed in the way the eco-guards dealt with the 16’000 inhabitants – for the better. The Surveillance and Anti-Poaching Unit that Mr. BOKANDZA coordinates (USLAB, in French) comprises 40 law-enforcing eco-guards that patrol the Ngombé forest managed by INTERHOLCO in the North of the Republic of Congo through its subsidiary IFO.
“We no longer behave as authorities who go thwart the communities, but a lot more like partners,” affirms Mr. BOKANDZA. Who goes on to explain: “We encourage them to explain what is going on. We tell them, ‘You have the information, but you don’t have the means to take action; we have the means that the state has given us, but we don’t have the information. If we want to succeed, we need to work together, in everyone’s best interest.’”
INTERHOLCO works in synergy with the state eco-guards. Close cooperation between the state and the private sector for sustainable wildlife management is an arrangement which is unique to the Republic of Congo, as researchers from the University of Liège have recently illustrated.
IFO regularly organises joint training with the eco-guards of the neighbouring Odzala Kokoua National Park. The Park is run by international NGO African Parks, whose eco-guards sometimes interact with the inhabitants of the Ngombé forest. For training content and roll-out, INTERHOLCO relies on Cercle des droits de l’homme et de développement (CDHD or ‘Circle of Human Rights and Development’ in French), a Congolese NGO with a distinct human rights focus.
On top of that, IFO’s Social team suggests projects to the communities, to offer tangible alternatives to poaching. Each village freely selects and chooses which projects to carry out. INTERHOLCO provides funding with the taxes it pays and the indemnities that the village inhabitants request via Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), in return for harvesting in the forest close to their village.
Let’s take one step back to look at the bigger picture.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNPD), 65% of the Republic of Congo is covered in forests. Aware of their importance, the state government of the Republic of Congo (ROC) is already protecting 100’000 km2 of forests, roughly 3 times the size of Belgium. And 70% of Congo’s intact forest landscapes are also under state protection.
In order to finance forest conservation, the Republic of Congo has signed an agreement with the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). Talks with the World Bank on carbon credits are ongoing. Then, there are forest concessions.
Covering a surface of 11’600 km2, the Ngombé forest hosts more than 80 villages, with about 16’000 forest inhabitants.
It sits between two National Parks: Odzala-Kokoua (13’500 km2) and Ntokou-Pikounda (4’572 km2), two integrally protected areas that the Republic of Congo manages for conservation purposes. Despite the Route Nationale 2, the state-built highway cutting through Odzala Kokoua park and Ngombé, all one sees is a large, uninterrupted stretch of forest roughly the size of Belgium. No wonder this is a biodiversity eden, with thousands of elephants and gorillas (to name but two emblematic species) crossing back and forth.
Approximately 60% of the area is under strict protection, i.e. in the Odzala-Kokoua and Ntokou-Pikounda parks. Covering less than 40% of the area, the Ngombé forest has been designated as a production forest to provide opportunities for economic and social development for the local and indigenous peoples living in the area. In addition, even if the concession is meant to be a production forest, INTERHOLCO set aside 27% of the total surface for protection.
(to be continued)
Photos and infographics © INTERHOLCO
Mr. José Blanchard BOKANDZA heads the USLAB (French acronym standing for ‘Surveillance and Anti-Poaching Unit’), acting as coordinator of 40 law-enforcing eco-guards that patrol the forest managed by INTERHOLCO through its subsidiary IFO, in the Northern part of the Republic of Congo.
IFO’s management and environmental unit maintain close links with Mr. Bokandza, providing him with technical assistance and any information collected in the field that may prove useful in carrying out USLAB missions.
The establishment of USLAB is provided for in the agreements signed by INTERHOLCO with the Congolese state. The state is responsible for the sovereign missions of territorial surveillance and the fight against poaching. USLAB agents are made available to IFO by the Ministry of Forest Economy and report directly to Agence Congolaise de la faune et des aires protégées (ACFAP, or Congolese Agency for Wildlife and Protected Areas). IFO is responsible for the proper logistical functioning of the USLAB.
Communications contact INTERHOLCO
Tullia Baldassarri Höger von Högersthal
INTERHOLCO AG, Schutzengelstr. 36, 6340 Baar, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 (0)41 767 03 82