Primary forest protection and food security in the DRC: research and policy engagement for managing the GHG tradeoffs in land use decisions

Glenn Bush, Kathleen Savage, David McGlinchey, Amanda Poston, Joseph Zambo

Our project focuses on the Province of Équateur, building on the WHRC’s established policy research and capacity building program (Project Équateur: Projet Équateur website.). It is based the heart of the central wetland forest zone of the Congo Basin, one of the most carbon dense and biodiverse regions of the world. Much of the basins natural forested land remains largely intact due to a low level of development. Focusing on the expansion of a key agricultural technology (flooded rice production) which presents a critical threat to primary wetland forest ecosystems, we will assess the GHG implications of current versus “climate smart” agronomic practices and the associated social and economic costs and benefits of their adoption at scale. This work, in partnership with ETH Zurich (Dr. Matti Barthel and Dr. Johan Six) on GHG emissions from soils will generate empirical field based evidence, demonstrating how the implementation of “climate smart” flooded rice production can reduce expected GHG emissions from deforestation and increase product yield for smallholder farmers.
A man from Buya 1 begins the harvest of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) test plots – photo by Eva McNamara.
A key focus on increasing food production is the development of wetland rice systems. Wetland rice production has been successfully adopted at scale in pilot regions in the DRC e.g. Mongala Province, under various national agricultural development programs. Wetland rice production using high yield variety (HYV) technology, is particularly attractive as it promises higher yields than unirrigated flooded rice techniques. As a direct result of HYV promotion, there has been a significant increase in sub regional deforestation patterns. In the province of Mongala where a World Bank financed agricultural development program has operated for the past decade, the majority of forest clearance in the same period has been in wetland areas for HYV production. A similar trajectory of deforestation is anticipated in the neighboring province of Équateur, where its extensive primary wetland forests are ideal for conversion to wetland rice cultivation. A strategy is needed to intensify agricultural production, increase product yield per unit area of land and under improved land governance, reduce the need for conversion of natural ecosystems so that Équateur avoids the extensive deforestation seen in Mongala.
Project Équateur has promoted a novel variant of flooded rice production known as the system of rice intensification (SRI). SRI is a well-established method that improves yields compared to ‘traditional’ production, requiring no external agricultural inputs, instead exploiting returns to modified labor and cultural practices. It is promoted as a “climate-smart”, agro ecological method for increasing the productivity of rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. There have been a few limited tests of SRI methods in the DRC, successfully showing increased average rice yields from 1 ton/ha to 1.5 to 3 tons/ha. However, in the context of the wetland forests of the DRC, it is not known how “climate-smart” it is compared to HYV.
This project will create a novel baseline biophysical reference to assess the GHG emissions tradeoffs in establishment of different flooded rice technologies and provide clear policy and management guidelines to achieve DRC’s food security needs and commitment to reduce GHG emissions and deforestation.