Logging the forest

The Mbendjele Pygmy communities of northern Republic of Congo are working together with an international logging company to help protect the forest. Using GPS and a new radio station, the indigenous people keep the company and the community informed.

The Congo Basin forest covers an area twice the size of Nigeria (around 2 million square kilometres) and stretches over the countries of Gabon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo and Cameroon. It is the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon. While the rate of destruction is less than that of the South American jungle, conservationists have long been concerned about the amount destruction taking place through natural resource mining, population growth and logging in the area.

Consumers have also become steadily aware of the threat to this and other important ecosystems, and are gradually demanding products from renewable sources. Rather than lose potential sales, many of the world’s largest logging companies have decided to work together with international pressure groups and local populations living in affected areas.

The Tropical Forest Trust (TFT), a non-profit charity based in Switzerland, advises timber traders throughout the world on good forest management practices and tropical forest conservation. In the Congo Basin, TFT manages a project to protect the land of the indigenous Mbendjele Pygmy communities in the northern region of the Republic of Congo. The Indigenous People’s Voices project helps the Mbendjeles map the parts of the forest that are important to their culture and livelihoods, and works with the main logging company to ensure that these areas are protected.

Consumer driven

Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), a subsidiary of a Danish timber company, Dalhoff Larsen & Horneman Group (DLH), manages a 1.3 million hectare (13,000 square kilometres) area of the forest. This region is inhabited by around 16,000 people, 9,000 of whom are Mbendjele Pygmies. Consumer pressure drove the company to look carefully at its forestry management practices and to comply with standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

FSC, an independent not-for-profit organization, sets conditions for good forestry management practices and awards a standards certificate to companies that meet the criteria. (ICTUpdate, for example, is printed on paper from sources certified by the FSC. See the logo on page 2.) FSC specifies that companies must preserve the forest ecosystem which, in this case, includes the habitats of lowland gorillas and forest elephants. The organization also insists that ‘sites of special cultural, ecological, economic or religious significance to indigenous peoples shall be clearly identified in cooperation with such peoples, and recognized and protected by forest managers’.
To protect sites of importance to the Mbendjele people, the company would have to identify and map these very specific areas. The information could, of course, only come directly from the Mbendjeles themselves but due to their reclusive, semi-nomadic lifestyle it was difficult to approach and set up meetings with the communities.

The Mbendjeles live in small groups of 30 to 60 people, often dispersed throughout the forest as they hunt and gather their food. Their society is also very egalitarian in that they don’t have any chiefs or community leaders. And because most Mbendjeles are illiterate and speak no European languages, direct dialogue between them and the logging company would be very difficult.

Map making

CIB turned to the Tropical Forest Trust for advice in 2004. From the start, TFT engaged the help of a number of partner organizations and anthropologists familiar with the lifestyle, language and traditions of the Mbendjeles. The team agreed that the most accurate way to map out the areas of cultural importance to the Mbendjeles was to plot out specific locations using a geographic information system (GIS). The Mbendjeles would use GIS to store and analyze reference points, and the data collected would be incorporated into CIB’s system to produce accurate harvesting maps. The company can then use this information to plan its logging programme and ensure the sites are protected.
CIB had never before worked so closely with local communities, but for Lucas van der Walt, environmental manger for the company, it was important to try. ‘No one was sure if this kind of forest operation was possible in the Congo Basin, but we decided that if the company wanted to be here for the long-term, sustainable forest management was the only way forward,’ he said. ‘We hoped that these efforts would ultimately translate into a smarter, cost-effective and more profitable business.’

Businesses that profit from the land had rarely consulted local indigenous people in the Congo Basin. Certainly it was the first time a logging company had asked the Mbendjeles for their input and cooperation. The communities of Mbendjeles, who had never before worked with computers, would now be tasked with using handheld, GPS-enabled (global positioning system) technology to map out their land. Dr Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and an expert on Pygmy communities in the region, helped design a system the Mbendjeles could easily use.

The result is a software package called CI Earth that runs on a rugged handheld computer with a touch-sensitive screen. Using a powerful receiver capable of communicating with satellites even through the dense forest canopy, the device automatically uploads data on specific locations directly into a GIS map or Google Earth.

Dr Lewis worked with the Mbendjele people to develop pictograms, which were incorporated into the software. These easily recognizable icons made it easier for the Mbendjeles to identify and describe the significance of each site, even if they were unable to read or write. Every time they came to a site of cultural importance, they could press a button on the device to automatically record the exact location. Pressing on the picture of a small syringe, for example, recorded the position of a tree of medicinal importance, and an icon of a domed hut indicated a village. Other important areas include burial grounds, natural springs and sites of spiritual significance.

New concepts

The Mbendjeles adapted quickly to the new technology. On the first field test of the system, the TFT team went into the forest together with some members of the community and staff from CIB. After two hours of capturing data, the team was able to upload the information to a laptop. By transferring the data to a saved Google Earth map, the team was able to show the Mbendjeles how easy it was to make a map.

Not only had no one in the Pygmy community ever seen a computer, but they also had no concept of the planet Earth. The Mbendjeles watched intently as the computer screen first showed images of the entire planet, before zooming in to their location in the Congo Basin. Gradually, the computer revealed details of rivers with which the Mbendjeles were familiar. Dr Lewis explained what they were seeing and traced the lines of rivers and indicated the road and location where they were standing. Within minutes, the Mbendjeles were able to recognize landmarks and point to features on the map. They were also able to see the trees they had plotted that day. This gave the Mbendjeles some confidence in the technology. Even the older men and women of the community became interested once they realized the system had the potential to help them protect their land.
Mbendjele hunters now take the devices with them as they go into the forest to track animals, and before the logging company has arrived in the territory. When they record the location of a significant area, the logging company downloads the information and accurately maps the site. Exact locations are decided after further discussions between CIB and the community and the Mbendjeles mark off their key resources with white paint to ensure tree fellers on the ground know exactly which trees and areas will be protected.

Currently, the communities get information on where and when logging will occur from CIB representatives called ‘animateurs’. These liaison officers go into the villages and meet with community members to discuss the latest developments and give details of logging plans. However, Mbendjeles spend much of their time travelling in the forest, and it is difficult to keep everyone informed all the time.

Jungle sounds

Recognizing this break in the communication chain, the project team introduced radio to the Mbendjeles. This, too, was a new technology for the community. There had been little need previously for the Mbendjeles to have a radio. Most broadcasts from the region don’t reach so far into the jungle or are in a language they could not understand.

The Tropical Forest Trust carried out feasibility studies to assess the possibility of radio coverage in the area, and to learn whether there was local interest in the technology. The results showed the Mbendjeles had a real interest in radio. Regular broadcasts in their own language would give them the chance to keep the wider population informed. The next logical step in the project, therefore, was to set up a community radio station for the Mbendjeles.
TFT also tested portable wind-up radios, to see if the community would use them and whether they would be robust enough to survive long-term use by semi-nomadic people. The small radios, which don’t need batteries, proved to be very popular with the Mbendjeles and have since been distributed among community members and family groups.

The result of these trials is Radio Biso na Biso, which means ‘between us’ in the local Lingala language. It is the first radio station for indigenous forest communities in Central Africa, and will be staffed by people from the community. Due to start broadcasting later in 2008, the station will provide information on forestry management plans with programmes to encourage debate on issues that can later be raised with the logging company. CIB have already constructed the studio and the TFT has been awarded a community broadcast licence for the station. Dr Lewis will again be involved, along with Open Air Radio, a grassroots media project based in the UK, to develop an 18-month training programme for the Mbendjeles to help them with technical and production tasks during the early stages of the station.

Related links
Tropical Forest Trust (TFT)
Established in 1999, the TFT works to conserve threatened tropical forests through sustainable management. TFT member companies are committed to sourcing wood from TFT forest projects and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests. The organization is funded through a combination of member contributions, grants, contracts and donations.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
More than 90 million hectares in more than 70 countries have been certified according to FSCstandards while several thousand products are produced using FSC-certified wood and carrying the FSC trademark. FSC operates through its network of National Initiatives in 45 countries.
Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB)
CIB is involved in the production, processing and export of a wide range of African wood species. The company operates four sawmills, a kiln and a modern moulding facility at the industrial sites of Pokola and Kabo in the Republic of Congo. CIB employs about 1,800 people and provides employees with free housing, electricity, running water, primary health care and schooling.

Forest People's Programme (FPP)
FPP carries out national and international advocacy work that is focused on policy-making related to forests and human rights. The organization works with many NGOs, environmental and human rights networks to help coordinate positions on international forest policy and related initiatives.

Open Air Radio
Open Air is an independent internet radio channel housed at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The station builds on the rich and varied expertise of the institution and its links with local communities. Open Air is run with the help of volunteers from the University of London and like-minded communities from around the world.
The World Bank Development Marketplace
Development Marketplace is a competitive grant program administered by the World Bank that identifies and funds innovative, early-stage projects with high potential for development impact.

The Tech Museum of Innovation Awards
The Awards program was launched in November 2000 and was inspired by the State of the Future report, published by the Millennium Project of the American Council of the United Nations University. The report recommends that award recognition is an effective way to accelerate scientific breakthrough and technological applications to improve the human condition.

&Co magazine
&Co magazine is aimed primarily at key stakeholders in Congolese society: governmental and non-governmental players, the media, associations, NGOs, students, the general public and anybody else with an interest in the country’s development. This special issue on the Congolese forests examines the main topics dealt with at the international conference on sustainable management of forests in the DRC, which took place in Brussels on February 26-27, 2007 at the initiative of the Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation. (pdf file)


The Mbendjeles have made a few pilot programmes already and have plans to eventually have regular broadcasts, with programmes featuring traditional music, educational and public-service programmes. It is also expected that the radio broadcasts will be used to give the communities information on HIV / Aids and other health concerns. Because the Mbendjeles spend a lot of time travelling in the forest, it is difficult to find a central point where they can receive medical treatment. This has caused particular problems during vaccination schemes, for example, where many children have missed vital inoculations. Announcements on radio will inform the people, wherever they are, as to when and where a medical team will be visiting.

Although the station is based in the logging town of Pokola, the project team intend to build smaller satellite studios throughout the area, with a series of broadcasting towers to relay the signal to reach as many people as possible. The World Bank will provide some of the funding for the project and CIB has promised to match that amount.
The investment of time and money by CIB into the Indigenous People’s Voices project helped the company gain FSC certification for one of its concessions in the region in 2006, the first such area in tropical Africa to meet the requirements. The FSC will carry out further audits in 2008, and the project team is confident that CIB is at least heading in the right direction.

The project itself was recognized in November 2007 by the Tech Museum of Innovation in the social equality category of their Laureate awards scheme. The museum, based in San Jose, California, recognizes people and projects around the world that ’use technology to benefit humanity’. Receiving the award was a great honour for the project managers at TFT. ‘We are proud to be among those recognized for their contributions,’ said Scott Poynton, the trust’s executive director. ‘I think the CIB approach is a living, breathing example that timber production does not have to be synonymous with tropical forest destruction,’ he added. ‘What we hope to demonstrate with our work in the Congo, and elsewhere, is that there are rewards to be had for companies that do things the right way.’

02 April 2008

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