The Itombwe Rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is an internationally recognized conservation area due to the extraordinary biodiversity of its plants and animals. However, its enviable wealth of farming, mining, forestry, water and cultural resources have been a constant source of conflict and war, leading to the ongoing suffering and human rights abuses of the Pygmy forest communities and devastation to the land.
The Itombwe Rainforest is part of the Congo Rainforest, the second largest tropical rainforest on Earth and scientists estimate that the entire Congo Rainforest will be gone by 2100 at the current rate of deforestation. Sixty percent of the Congo Rainforest is located in the DRC, making this region a vital area of concern, particularly as we look to forests for carbon sequestration and climate mitigation. In addition to industrialized logging, illegal timber harvesting operations, mining and farming, local communities have depended entirely on the Itombwe’s old-growth forest for fuelwood and other wood products such as timber, charcoal and medicine. Through trainings and on-the-ground projects, WECAN/DRC’s program addresses these issues through the elevation of women’s leadership, environmental education concerning protection of old-growth forests, widespread reforestation activities, and renewal of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
For five years, women in South Kivu Province have been organizing through the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) in partnership with Synergie des Associations Feminines du Congo (SAFECO) to protect the natural forest and reforest previous clear-cuts. The size of the area to be reforested is 1,209 square kilometers. Our mandate is to: protect old-growth forests and regenerate harmed forest ecosystems for biodiversity well-being and climate mitigation; create income-generating livelihoods for women through tree planting and harvesting and sale of fruits and herbs from planted trees; secure land ownership for women; give girls more access to education since they do not need to walk such long distances in order to provide daily wood and other forest needs; support women’s leadership and respect in their communities and to uplift Indigenous practices of humans living in right relationship with nature.
Ours is the first and only project of its kind to occur in the Itombwe Rainforest. Also unique is that the implementers and leaders are women, increasing respect for women and their leadership role within the communities. The women refer to themselves as forest guardians and take great pride in their efforts to protect old-growth forests, guard against illegal logging, and to plant trees in damaged landscapes— 30% of the trees planted are for human use and 70% are to reforest. So far 12 communities are engaged representing 25,000 people who are no longer harvesting old- growth forests.
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