Nature and Biodiversity

Women are leading the restoration of the world’s second largest tropical rainforest - here’s how

In the Democratic Republic of Congo women are helping to conserve and restore the rainforest

In the Democratic Republic of Congo women are helping to conserve and restore the rainforest Image: Unsplash/Johnnathan Tshibangu

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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SDG 13: Climate Action

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  • Around 500 women are helping to protect and restore rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
  • The project is led by a global climate justice organization that helps women take action against climate change.
  • They have so far planted more than 100,000 trees and are campaigning to stop illegal timber harvesting in DRC’s Itombwe Rainforest.
  • Research has found that the world’s forests absorb around 7.6 metric tonnes a year of CO2, making them essential in the fight against climate change.

The Congo Rainforest in Africa is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world – but it could be completely gone within 80 years because of deforestation.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which hosts 60% of the rainforest, a network of women is trying to halt this decline in a project called DR Congo Women for Forests.

Around 500 women are planting trees, learning about reforestation and campaigning to stop illegal timber harvesting in DRC’s Itombwe Rainforest. This is an internationally recognized conservation area because of the immense biodiversity of its plants and animals.

Climate justice for women

The project is led by Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network International (WECAN), a global climate justice organization that helps women around the world take action against climate change.

WECAN is particularly focused on collaborating with women on the front line of climate change, including indigenous women, Black women, women from low-income groups and women from the ‘Global South’– which broadly refers to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

This is because they “bear an even heavier burden from the impacts of climate change because of the historic and continuing impacts of colonialism, racism and inequality,” says WECAN.

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Growing the rainforest

Since the WECAN DR Congo programme started in 2014 in South Kivu, one of DRC’s 26 provinces, the women have planted more than 100,000 trees – “all by hand, with no machinery or equipment,” the organization says.

Alongside regenerating the tropical rainforest to help combat climate change and boost biodiversity, a key aim of the initiative is to create income-generating livelihoods for women through tree planting and the harvesting and sale of fruits and herbs from planted trees.

The women grow more than 25 local tree varieties in their tree nurseries. Three-quarters of the trees planted are for re-wilding damaged lands, and the other quarter for medicine, food, fuel and reforestation.

This reduces the need for local communities to depend on harvesting products like these from the oldest parts of the rainforest, which are vital for removing carbon from the atmosphere and protecting biodiversity.

Food security for rainforest communities

Since 2020, local women have also been growing cabbage, carrots, eggplant and other crops in gardens, after the project introduced a ‘food sovereignty’ component. This is about giving communities control over how food is produced and distributed.

Through workshops, online training and an ongoing reforestation programme, women are learning about leadership and their rights and the long-term harm of industrial deforestation and illegal logging. They also learn how protecting the Itombwe Rainforest can help combat climate change, and why learning hands-on reforestation techniques is important.

Defending women’s rights

A key part of the project is defending the rights of indigenous Pygmy communities living in the tropical rainforest, whose cultural and ecological heritage is “severely threatened by unsustainable and exploitative logging, mining and agricultural practices,” WECAN DR Congo says.

To campaign for change, the women have formed a local conservation committee, drafted a declaration, and met with government officials, military members and local non-governmental organizations to share their plans and call for accountability.

Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo are challenging threats to the Congo Rainforest including logging and mining.
Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo are challenging threats to the Congo Rainforest including logging and mining. Image: GRID-Arendal

Why forests matter

Restoring and protecting forests is an important way for the world to combat the interlinked environmental crises of climate change and nature loss.

Research has found that the world’s forests absorb around 7.6 metric tonnes a year of CO2. This is one and a half times more carbon than the annual emissions of the United States.

Tropical rainforests are the “most important ecosystems for mitigating climate change,” because they lock away more carbon from the atmosphere than other types of forest, says the World Resources Institute. But tropical rainforests are also most under threat from deforestation and farm expansion.

Natural solutions to climate change

One of the World Economic Forum’s initiatives is the Global Future Council on Nature-Based Solutions. This aims to help remove barriers to the deployment at scale of nature-based solutions, like protecting and restoring forests, peatlands, grasslands and freshwater and marine ecosystems.

The Council’s work includes unlocking finance to invest in these natural defences. The Forum estimates that, by 2030, implementing nature-positive policies could generate around $10 trillion in new annual business value and create 395 million jobs.

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