Saturday, December 8, 2007

why i'm here

so everyone has been asking what i'm doing here, workwise and i should probably tell you before you think this is just a big weird funny vacation. the government of DRC asked for my organization's help in determining biologically important areas for conservation, to help increase the amount of park area from 10 to 15% of the entire country, which is like adding the state of virginia. now, we all know DRC parks to begin with aren't that great, but the real issue here is that the congo basin is the largest remaining forest in africa, and only second to the amazon in the world. but this is the 'green heart' of the continent, if not the hemisphere, and also a carbon sink which is a potential money-maker, not to mention tourism opportunities etc....and this is all under tremendous threat. there are a whole slew of legal and illegal industrial logging concessions - countries like china are knocking on the door with a suitcase of a few billion dollars waiting for a piece of the pie (i guess indonesia wasn't enough for them). it's pretty rare for a war-torn, under-developed country like DRC to want to suddenly invest in conservation, but everyone is doing it. Republic of Congo has added some parks, CAF says they want to go to 12% and now DRC wants in on the game. The DRC recently re-did their forest code, which had previously been written by the Belgians, and Kabila has taken this opportunity to freeze all new concessions and re-evaluate existing ones while this prioritization is completed. The prioritization though, covers the whole country, which gives a chance to set aside some unique savanna, mangrove and freshwater areas for protection too. there is a lot of interest in this process from the french, belgians and international NGO's, which is another good thing.
i pretty much did the whole spatial analysis - determining the most suitable areas for conservation (remote areas away from towns, mines, dams) that are in unique terrestrial and freshwater habitats. this involved a program called MARXAN which helps evaluate many spatial layers to find what is most unique in terms of habitat, while optimizing the conservation value. (everyone kept asking me who MARXAN is. is he your boyfriend?)
So with the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) we hosted a workshop in kinshasa that gathered biological experts as well as indigenous and community groups to determine where the priorities lie and how to include local people in this process. my maps served as a base for the experts to add their knowledge to delineate important places in and around the existing parks, and to provide spatial data where little is known (most of the country). after sessions of drawing and re-drawing on maps, the results were digitized by me and my team and a set of final maps were created showing areas defined as highest, high and medium priority areas connected by corridors, and each place was assessed according to their unique species, persistence, threat etc...
i'm now polishing up these results and overlaying the existing concessions so we can now get the review and consultation process rolling, and ultimately determine which concessions need to be re-negotiated or moved. Bruce Babbit, on our board was very interested in this project and asked to join us, and he'll now be our ambassador to help the DRC government and others to pressure, negotiate with the concession owners (mostly french and belgian and african). this issue will also be presented to Nicholas Sarkozy when he visits, to work the french angle. so there's some political power on our side as well.
so that was the first part of the trip.
i was asked to stay on for 2 additional weeks to assist one of the congo basin forest partnership (CBFP) landscapes do some conservation planning. these landscapes are 14 defined areas that get funding from USAID and work in collaboration with other organizations various conservation and community projects throughout the entire basin, including DRC, Gabon, Camerounm CAF and Congo - the bonobo village we visited was in one of the landscapes in western DRC. the folks in the landscape around the Salonga National Park (largest rainforest park in africa) want a similar planning analysis as i did for the whole country, but at a much smaller scale and more specific to the threats there. and the threat in Salonga, sadly, is bushmeat hunting.
just seeing that word is eerie.
there are lots of people living in and around this park who depend on the forest for meat. there are no supermarkets, people! a lot of these are communities who don't farm or raise animals, it's just not their mojo, baby. so there's a lot of pressure on these forests and animals are disappearing and it eventually disrupts the forest (whose poop will spread seeds once all the ungulates are gone?). on the other side, there are mining and forest conecessions and when these areas are exploited, companies bring hundreds of more people (workers and their families) who ultimately rely on the forest. and then there are the military guys who get dropped off in the woods with kalishnakovs, never get paid, and just kill whatever they want. in the end, most see bushmeat as god's gift to the people, but it's quickly running out.
so i'm working on a different sort of analysis that tries to determine how much forest we need to support first and foremost the local people - this is making a big optimistic hope that we can address the military politically, and the mining and forest concessions by making the companies provide food, or hunting alternatives (livestock, agriculture) to their employees and their families. so we need a chunk of forest that will be strictly protected, to provide a source of animals, and designated hunting zones. but how much forest?
the general rule i found from local studies is that 1 square kilometer will suppport 1 adult human's protein needs for a year.
next, we need the population of the people in the area...which is harder than getting data on bonobos. the last census was in 1984, but since then there was a population boom, a war...we're looking at election data - they had about 100% turnout in the first democratic election...but what about the children? what are the demographics?

i'm also trying to map hunting threat - people often use logging roads to go deep into the forest, or paddle or wade along rivers. how far can you paddle up a river in a day? or sludge through a swamp forest? i'm trying to map all of this. if we know where and how many people there are, we can figure out how they likely move in the landscape. and they likely go to where the animals are...
so we need some species data. i modeled elephant habitat based on where we found dung, and bonobos based on their nesting sites. so there's a general idea of where somethings are.
finally, once we determine how much forest we need based on local population, we'll run MARXAN to determine the best place to protect forest - (this will be low threat, intact forest with high biodiversity). adjacent areas can then be hunting areas, like a buffer zone.
if there is not enough forest to support all these people, then there needs to be an alternative. and that will involve animal husbandry programs, perhaps some sort of agriculture, or hey, microfinance! so the last part will involve mapping areas suitable for these based on soil, access, away from intact forests etc...we can also determine how much agriculture is needed to support this many people, and identify accessible, non-essential forest or savanna lands suitable for planting manioc or something.
now, the past few days have been slow, we just got the base data and are still working on the population...this is a lot of work to finish in 4 days, with a bunch of slacker assistants! which is why i'm be putting in a full day on saturday. enjoy your weekends!

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