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New project launched to prevent deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo-DRC
(November 10, 2021)

The Ituri Forest in Eastern DRC, anchored by the vast Okapi Wildlife Reserve, is home to a wildly diverse range of animals including okapi, forest elephants, 17 species of primates, leopards, bongo antelope and a variety of birds and insects. Its forests face increasing pressure of deforestation from, among other factors, shifting cultivation agriculture both outside and inside the reserve and a growing human population. The area shows great potential to sustainably develop cocoa farming as a source of local revenue for communities living in the periphery of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, but it is critical to ensure this does not further degrade or damage primary forests. 

Today, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation launched the Positioning Shade-Grown Cocoa to Improve Conservation and Rural Livelihoods activity to protect a critical piece of the world’s second-largest rainforest from deforestation due to agriculture. USAID and the Packard Foundation are partnering with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Rikolto, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to sustain human communities in Eastern DRC and the ecosystems they rely on.

The goal of the project is to create economic opportunities that provide sufficient income for farmers without loss of primary forests.

“This project reflects the will of the American people to continue to support peoples’ livelihoods while preserving their natural resources and conserving biodiversity,” said USAID DRC Deputy Mission Director Alisa Cameron. The U.S. Government’s partnership with the Congolese people through the Shade-Grown Cocoa activity is an opportunity to unlock the potential of growth in the sustainable cocoa value chain, link cocoa farmers to markets, transform rural economies and create a path out of poverty for the community surrounding the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.”

Ituri province is projected to see an increase in cocoa production in coming years, with public demand for cocoa rising and climate projections showing decreased suitability for the crop in other cocoa-growing regions. To make sure this doesn’t result in humanitarian or ecological harm, it’s critical that the transition is informed by science, sustainable best practices, and the needs of local farmers and communities.

“We know from West Africa that cocoa production can lead to vast deforestation,” said Virginia Zaunbrecher, associate director of the Congo Basin Institute (CBI) at UCLA. “This project works collaboratively with stakeholders to prevent that from happening in the extraordinary forests of Eastern DRC.”

The project is in line with the CBI’s mission to develop and test thoughtful, collaborative solutions to complex problems in the world’s second largest rainforest.

Small-scale farming is and will remain an important part of the rural economy in the Ituri region. This project will support local communities and protect wildlife for the long term, and support the role of protected areas — in this case Okapi Wildlife Reserve — as anchor institutions that can help drive local sustainable development and green growth.

The project will be executed by a team of experienced research and nonprofit organizations including UCLA and IITA under the umbrella of CBI, WCS and Rikolto, a nonprofit that enables and supports smallholder farmers to take up their role in rural poverty alleviation.

Over the next year, this team will engage stakeholders and develop a business case for investing in sustainable cocoa in the Ituri province. The process will connect businesses committed to sustainable cocoa production with farmers willing to protect local biodiversity and ecosystems — and promote private investment in sustainable cocoa in the area.

Following a pilot phase, the business case will be implemented over the following four years with private sector partners.


USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID works to help lift lives, build communities, and advance democracy. USAID’s work advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity, demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience. President John. F. Kennedy created the United States Agency for International Development by executive order in 1961 to lead the US government’s international development and humanitarian efforts

The Congo Basin Institute is a research and practice institute dedicated to developing and testing science-based solutions to challenges of conservation, food security, climate change, and human health in the Congo Basin.  It was co-founded by UCLA and IITA.

Based in Los Angeles, California, UCLA is a public research university with a mission of creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society. In 2021, it was named the No. 1 ranked public university by U.S. News and World Report for the fifth consecutive year and enrolls a diverse student body of over 40,000.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (iita.org) is an award-winning, research-for-development (R4D) organization, providing solutions to hunger, poverty, and the degradation of natural resources in Africa. It is part of CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food secure future. Since 1967, IITA has worked with international and national partners to improve livelihoods, enhance food and nutrition security, increase employment, and preserve natural resource integrity. Our R4D programs focus on: biotechnology and genetic improvement, natural resource management, plant production and health management, and social science and agribusiness.

Rikolto builds bridges between smallholder farmer organizations, companies, authorities and other actors across rural and urban areastoguarantee a sustainable income for farmers and nutritious, affordable food for everyone.  Rikolto has worked on agricultural value chains in Eastern DRC for over 30 years.

Wildlife Conservation Society is a US NGO established in 1895 that saves wildlife and wild places by understanding critical issues, crafting science-based solutions, and taking conservation actions that benefit nature and humanity. With more than a century of experience, WCS has been established in the DRC since 1985, and has amassed the biological knowledge, cultural understanding and well-established partnerships to ensure that vibrant, wild places and wildlife thrive alongside local communities.

Photo credit: MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)