“I have a duty to protect the forest, as it feeds me and my family,” says Thomas.
The Ituri Forest, which Thomas Aseli speaks about with emotion, is located in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is a sacred place for the Mbuti Indigenous People. Within this spectacular rainforest is the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. It occupies about one-fifth of the forest and houses some of the richest wildlife in central Africa, including a large population of the reserve’s iconic okapi, also known as a forest giraffe. It is also home to more than 100 species of mammals, including several endangered species such as the forest elephant and the eastern chimpanzee.
Since the dawn of time, the Mbuti people have lived in harmony with this incredible biodiversity. Their survival depends on a healthy ecosystem, and their food system and livelihoods support that.
Their hunting practices ensure that a natural balance remains, keeping the ecosystem in check, while wild meat offers the communities an important source of protein, fat and micronutrients.
When the time comes to hunt, part of the clan stays at the hunting camp located a few kilometres from their village of Bapukeli to cut wood and gather fruit, while the other group silently slips through the equatorial forest’s dense vegetation. Not a sound betrays the lightness of their steps.
“The forest is something to be observed, but also to be listened to,” explains Thomas.
With nets on their heads and spears in their hands, the group moves forward with the hope of capturing the animals that are so critical to their survival. Even with their deep knowledge of the territories and the rich, seasonal biodiversity available, they now need to go further to hunt.
“Lately, we are only catching animals by chance. They are now hiding far away,” reveals Thomas, visibly concerned about the situation.
The forests of the Congo Basin are being depleted at an alarming rate by increased wild meat trade and demand from the city, undermining the Mbuti people’s indigenous food system and exacerbating the poverty that Indigenous Peoples and rural communities are facing. This increased demand is itself driven by the proliferation of commercial and trade activities, as well as food insecurity in neighbouring provinces, particularly when other meat options are missing.
Wildlife and minerals such as gold and diamonds are also attracting mining, farming and logging operators, poachers and armed militias to the Okapi wildlife reserve.
“There are now many people in the forest, but I live there. I don’t want others to come and destroy it,” says Thomas.
Each year, hunting, mainly driven by commercial interests, results in more than 5 million tonnes of wild meat being taken from these forests. Wildlife depletion in the region threatens not only the Okapi wildlife reserve, but also the survival, cultural identity and the ancestral food and knowledge systems of the Mbuti people.
The Mbuti peoples’ hunting techniques, such as net hunting, had been generally sustainable as catches had been primarily used for their own consumption. However, in recent years, the Mbuti peoples’ hunting practices and livelihoods have been under pressure due to the country’s urbanization and population growth, in addition to violations of their territorial rights.
In 2017, a consortium of international partners led by FAO launched the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, which brings together 15 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to reduce threats to wildlife.
Globally, the SWM Programme’s aim is to improve wildlife hunting regulations, increase the supply of sustainably produced meat products and farmed fish, empower and strengthen the management capacities of Indigenous Peoples and rural communities and reduce demand for wild meat, particularly in towns and cities.
Indigenous Peoples and rural communities are at the heart of the SWM Programme and their equitable participation and rights-based inclusion is essential. The SWM Programme in the country is working to reduce the threats to biodiversity and to the Mbuti people both within as well as outside the Okapi reserve.
One of the SWM Programme’s objectives in the reserve is to update the hunting rules, in a participatory manner with Indigenous Peoples and rural communities. Currently, hunting is allowed in some areas of the reserve. However, some of the regulations for the use of natural resources, especially those concerning wildlife, are outdated. Moreover, despite a ban on external hunters, they still manage to access these areas. The SWM Programme is collaborating with the reserve’s managers to apply and enforce these new rules.
To further decrease pressures on hunting and to provide a healthy, sustainable alternative to wild meat, the SWM Programme and rural communities are working together to develop environmentally-friendly agriculture and small-scale chicken and palm larvae farms as alternative sources of protein and income.
“My wish is to leave the forest untouched for future generations so that they may also find the animals that I find now,” Thomas concluded.
The SWM Programme is an initiative of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, funded by the European Union and co-financed by the French Facility for Global Environment and the French Development Agency. It is implemented by a consortium of partners which includes FAO, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, the Center for International Forestry Research and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the activities are being coordinated by WCS, in collaboration with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature.