A Hub for Innovative Conservation in the Congo Basin
The Congo Basin is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, stores an estimated 25-30 million tons of carbon stocks, and is home to nearly 20% of Earth’s species. It is also ground zero for the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on food and water security, human health, and the environment. Seventy percent of the poorest billion people on Earth live in Sub-Saharan Africa, including some of the most extraordinary indigenous groups. Meeting ambitious global conservation goals requires that we succeed in conserving the Congo Basin.
The Congo Basin Institute (CBI) is a new network that drives conservation in Central Africa through scientific excellence, capacity building, and local participation. CBI conducts the science needed to make smart conservation decisions (see text box). But science alone cannot solve these problems—people are a critical element of our model. We have decades of experience and deep substantive partnerships with local communities. We build the capacity of African scientists to conduct conservation science, and engage indigenous people to incorporate local knowledge. CBI’s solution is scalable through its affiliated network of over a dozen regional campuses and CBI’s growing number of scientific collaborators. CBI’s model works. In May 2016, our leadership resulted in the World Bank advancing Cameroon’s proposed REDD+ project to the Project Development stage. As one of the largest efforts in Africa, the project would help protect 93,328 km2 of tropical forest–an area larger than the state of Maine. This effort demonstrates that by bringing together the people and the science needed for conservation action, CBI offers the opportunity for a big win.
Leveraging science for conservation
Our 35 years of research is a foundation for more effectively preserving the biodiversity of the Congo Basin:
- Improve conservation decision-making: We have shown the processes that generate and maintain rainforest biodiversity may take place along environmental gradients or ecotones on the periphery of rainforests. The results of this research are leading to a paradigm shift on what areas to protect and how to buffer species from the ravages of climate change.
- Inform rainforest restoration: Research in Cameroon’s Dja Reserve on seed dispersal by rainforest vertebrates in Central Africa has yielded novel ecological information that can be used to re-green rainforest. With the science of conservation now becoming the science of restoration – we can leverage knowledge of natural processes to restore rainforest.
- Engage local and indigenous knowledge: We are helping to preserve traditional knowledge by employing Baka as research assistants while working to find win-win solutions between people and biodiversity.
The Bouamir Research Station would provide a model for protecting and restoring the Congo Basin forest by providing a hub for conservation research and integrating knowledge and input from indigenous people.
The project has three objectives:
Objective 1: Create Research Infrastructure in Southern Cameroon
We cannot conserve what we do not understand, and there is a critical need to better understand the Congo Basin’s rainforests. Scientists need places to conduct this research: basic field camps to use as hubs while conducting studies, and places to test reforestation and agricultural intensification approaches. This project will create two critical sites, and will integrate them with a network of CBI’s laboratories and other infrastructure. The sites at Bouamir and Somalomo will represent the two different sides of the human-forest interface.
Somalomo. The village of Somalomo sits on the edge of the Dja Biosphere Reserve, and represents the human side of the interface between people and forest. CBI will refurbish an existing un-used residential building in the Park Conservator’s compound in Somalomo. Adjacent land will be used for re-forestation research (see Objective 3), and will house scientists conducting research in Somalomo and those in transit to Bouamir. The Somalomo Camp will also be a key site for coordination with the Park Conservator, who has a field station there, and as a logistics hub. All of the supplies for the Bouamir Research Station will be organized through Somalomo.
Bouamir. The Bouamir Research Station will be located at the western center of the Dja Biosphere Reserve in southern Cameroon, at the forest side of the human-forest interface. The station will host researchers as they seek to understand the forest in order to conserve it. Reaching the station requires a 30 km hike from Somalomo; it is not accessible by motorized vehicle. The presence of the station is also important for deterring poaching.
The permanent presence of the researchers will deter poaching in the area, and the manager of the field station will report any signs of poaching to the Ecoguards based in Somalomo for immediate action.
The facilities will be open to researchers working on conservation, biodiversity, health, and other environmental projects. After the initial restoration, the facilities will transition to a fee for use model, enhancing their sustainability. For instance, partners who are working on collecting samples of forest plants to improve the performance of commercial varietals can use the facilities for a small fee to cover operating expenses.
History of Bouamir Research Station
In 1993 we established the Bouamir Research Station and a 25km2 study area, and ran the Research Station for eight years as part of an integrated study of forest regeneration and the birds and mammals that disperse rainforest tree seeds.
This work demonstrated the importance of certain animals in seed distribution. The research resulted in 50 published scientific papers that drove conservation efforts, and provided eight years of protection in the heart of the Dja. The project engaged Baka guides, and facilitated the transition of local knowledge from older Baka to the younger generation.
UNESCO’s consideration of changing the status of the Dja to “endangered” makes clear the importance and timeliness of redoubling these efforts.
Objective 1 Outcomes:
- Refurbishing and maintenance of Somalomo Camp for two years
- Re-establishment and maintenance of the Bouamir Research Station for two years
- Infrastructure support for researchers studying the Congo Basin forest
- Deterrence of poaching in the Dja reserve
Objective 2: Engage Indigenous Communities and Local and International Scientists
People, especially those who live in and around the forest, are a critical piece of advancing conversation in the Congo Basin. This project will engage those people, applying their local knowledge to enhance research and conservation outcomes while providing them with employment that supports their cultural heritage, and documentation and dissemination of their local knowledge.
Baka People. The Baka are an indigenous tribe that reside in and around the Dja biosphere. Dr. Tom Smith has been working with the group for 30 years, and they will be deeply involved in the operation of Bouamir and Somalomo and the research conducted there. We recently presented the prospect of re-opening the Bouamir Research Station at a Baka community meeting in Bifalone. The Baka community was enthusiastic about the re-opening of Bouamir and pledged their support.
Baka will be employed by this project as expert guides. In addition to supplementing their income, the project will provide a vehicle for the Baka to share their understanding of the forest, and to participate in research that directly concerns them and their community. Their local knowledge will be critical to the success of the research project. The project will work with a combination of senior guides and younger Baka. This model supports mentorship within the Baka community, creating an income generating opportunity for younger Baka that facilitates their learning traditional knowledge from their elders in the oral tradition.
Local and International Scientists. There is a massive amount of quality science that must be conducted to support the conversation of the Congo Basin, and the most efficient way to address this is to build the capacity of local scientists to conduct research. This project will engage Cameroonian students in the field research, giving them vital experience and building their capacity to conduct research. There will be two students employed by the project at all times, one in Somalomo and the other in Bouamir. and researchers will also have access to the facilities to use for their research.
Objective 2 Outcomes
- At least four Baka employed by the project, with a mix of senior guides and youth
- Recording of Baka traditional knowledge, and incorporation of that knowledge into research and policy recommendations
- At least eight local students employed as research assistants over the course of the project
- Information from indigenous groups incorporated into the REDD+ process
Objective 3: Test Reforestation Approaches
As destruction of habitat continues, the science of conservation is increasingly transitioning to the science of restoration. This project will test how we can leverage natural processes to reforest degraded habitats. The project will demarcate experimental plots at Somalomo and Bouamir. The plots at Bouamir, originally established in 1993, will be used to study and understand the characteristics and temporal processes of a mature rainforest. This would include studying the roles of birds and mammals in dispersing seeds, to help understand how tree species are propagated. Using previously collected data at Bouamir, we can compare the flora and fauna present in different transects to compare how it has changed over the past 20 years.
Similar experimental plots at Somalomo will experimentally test restoration methodologies using a randomized plot design. Our previous work established that vertebrates play an important role in seed distribution. This new research will focus on how we can leverage natural processes to reforest degraded areas. Methods tested will include (a) planting species known to attract specific frugivores to see if it aids seed distribution of a diverse cross section of flora; (b) placement of nest boxes for hornbills, known to disperse 35% of major tree species in the Dja to study whether it can increase seed rain in areas without natural tree cavities; (c) hand broadcasting of seeds; and (d) seedling planting of nursery raised trees. Our extensive research on seed dispersers and what species of vertebrates disperse which trees will allow us to better coordinate and sequence restoration efforts to attract the right disperser and the right stage.
The research will be based at the research stations managed in Objective 1, and will rely on local knowledge from guides employed as part of Objective 2. Local students will also participate in the research.
The findings on how natural processes can be leveraged to restore rainforests can also be used to inform the ongoing REDD+ process in Cameroon. With the Cameroon REDD+ project now advanced to the Project Development stage, such pilot projects are urgently required to guide how the massive REDD+ project will work in practice. A recent business plan completed by the UCLA’s Anderson School of Management on the REDD+ project emphasized the need for such pilot projects. The $50 million provided by donor nations to implement the project will be insufficient unless pilot studies are used to strategically identify the most effective approaches. This project also integrates indigenous people and incorporates their local knowledge, directly addressing a significant criticism of the REDD+ project.
Objective 3 Outcomes
- Improved understanding of the functioning of a mature rainforest
- Scientific data on the efficacy of natural reforestation approaches
- Pilot project information that can be used to support the full implementation of the REDD+ project in Cameroon.
- Comparative conservation studies of plant and animals leveraging extensive data collected in the 1990’s to understand trends and dynamics.
In combination these objectives would significantly advance efforts to protect and restore the Congo Basin. It would send a powerful message that by engaging local populations and employing state of the art science, we can succeed in preserving the Congo Basin.
The Research Station includes a two large platform tents—one for laboratory research and the other for dining and meetings. There are additional platforms for individual sleeping tents.