Traditional Land Use in the Congo Basin

Various hunter-gatherer pygmy groups inhabit the forests of the Congo basin. Most of these groups live in close association with the agriculturists, trading foods, meats, and other products. Pygmy groups include the Baka – Aka of the Central African Republic – Republic of Congo area, the Bongo of Gabon, and the Mbuti of Ituri - northeastern DRC. The Mbuti have been studied frequently, and are observed to practice a mix of hunting-gathering along with consumption of food from neighboring villages. Two of the most common wild fruit and nut sources in the region are the trees of African mango (Irvingia gabonensis), and safou / butterfruit (Dacryodes edulis), and studies have found that local peoples have domesticated these species on several occasions. Other important food resources from forest include seeds from Ricinodendron heudelotii, Gilbertiodendron dewevrei, African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), and the tubers of several species of wild yams. Read more about native fruits of the Congo Basin on the agroforestry page.

Also within the forested landscape of Central Africa, native populations have practiced shifting cultivation for thousands of years. Traditional smallholder agriculture is based on shifting cultivation, primarily of root crops such as cassava, yams, and cocoyam, trees of banana / plantain, and occasional ground nuts (Arachis hypogaea). Traditionally, farmers cleared an area of forest, cultivated for 2 years, allowed a fallow period of 5-20 years, depending on soil conditions, land availability, and various other factors, and returned to clear and cultivate again. Secondary forest is often dominated by regrowth of Musanga cecropiodes (related to the Cecropia pioneer trees of the Amazon Basin); shifting cultivation often targets these secondary forests because they are easier to clear than mature forest.  More recently, increasing populations and roads have encouraged more sedentary settlements and shorter fallow periods.

Significant debate surrounds the issue of the practice of hunter-gatherers in the Congo Basin, often termed the wild yam question, referring to yams, one the most vital wild food resource for these peoples. Some argue that native rainforest peoples could have subsisted for many years solely on hunting (mostly duikers) and gathering the wild yams (Dioscoreophyllum spp.), while others propose that rainforest food resources are scarce and hunter-gatherer peoples must have depended on agricultural food. Wild food resources are often more abundant in agriculturally derived secondary forests than in mature forest. A recent study of the Baka people in northwestern DRC – northeastern Cameroon found that they practice agriculture in the wet season and hunt / gather for several months during the dry season (December-February).

Nevertheless, most forest peoples of the Cong Basin practice some form of agriculture and shifting cultivation, and sources estimate approximately 90% of the human population of the region practice agriculture. Significant debate remains about the impact of local peoples and shifting cultivation practices on deforestation and forest health. While shifting cultivation has traditionally been targeted as one of the primary drivers of deforestation in the region, some argue that its negative impact is actually quite limited. Overall, deforestation in the Congo basin is low compared to the Amazon basin and the dry forests elsewhere in Africa, either due to low rural populations, poor road access, or economic dependence on oil and minerals. Rural populations are low in most Congo basin countries except DRC; studies show that deforestation increases when rural populations rise above 8.5 people / square kilometer and when cropland is above 20% of total area. Satellite observation shows that deforestation from these population clusters follows roads patterns rather than the diffuse pattern evident from shifting cultivation. This same study finds deforestation to peak within 5 hours of major cities and to disappear beyond 13 hours of travel time.


Sources:

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Bailey, R. C., Head, G., Jenike, M., Owen, B., Rechtman, R., & Zechenter, E. (1989). Hunting and gathering in tropical rain forest: Is it possible?. American Anthropologist91(1), 59-82.
 

Hart, T. B., & Hart, J. A. (1986). The ecological basis of hunter-gatherer subsistence in African rain forests: the Mbuti of Eastern Zaire. Human Ecology, 14(1), 29-55.

Headland, T. N. (1987). The wild yam question: How well could independent hunter-gatherers live in a tropical rain forest ecosystem?. Human Ecology15(4), 463-491.

Ickowitz, A. (2006). Shifting cultivation and deforestation in tropical Africa: critical reflections. Development and Change37(3), 599-626.
 

Leakey, R. R., et al. (2004). Evidence that subsistence farmers have domesticated indigenous fruits (Dacryodes edulis and Irvingia gabonensis) in Cameroon and Nigeria. Agroforestry Systems, 60(2), 101-111.

Mayaux, P., Pekel, J. F., Desclée, B., Donnay, F., Lupi, A., Achard, F., … & Belward, A. (2013). State and evolution of the African rainforests between 1990 and 2010. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences368(1625), 20120300.
 

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