What is the economic value of a tree in the Eastern DRC? Well, a tree seedling normally costs around $1.00 to buy, but when you add in cost of transportation, you must travel to Bukavu to find a tree nursery, the costs are raised to about $5.00 per seedling. Considering that most people make well below 300 dollars per year, investing money in one tree, let alone multiple is nearly impossible.
But what are the economic benefits of planting trees in your fields? Well for starters, you get free fertilizer for your crops. You can sell branches as bean poles and easily make $14 per tree per season. You can also sell a tree to pay for a child’s school fees, or to repair your house. Other species, like Eucalyptus, are great for firewood and for charcoal which is in high demand in Bukavu. Not to mention the non-economic benefits of preventing erosion, providing shade to your crops, maintaining soil fertility, and regulating the climate. All in all, people here around Kahuzi-Biega and the Itombwe Nature Reserve highly value trees. As one man told me, “ When we cut down one tree, we try and plant four more.”
Strong Roots, in collaboration with Partners in Conservation, currently operates the only tree nursery in the villages surrounding Kahuzi-Biega. On average we grow 100,000 trees a year in this nursery. Based in Miti, which also is the KiSwahili word for tree, we produce grevillea, markhamia, eucluptyus and podocarpus . From purchasing the seeds, bags, and other equipment to paying our tree manager and his staff, it costs us about 15 cents to produce each tree. Grevillea is the most highly demanded tree because it is a great organic fertilizer for fields and doesn’t disrupt crop growth. Markhamia is used by artists to carve masks and statues, but can also be used for lumber. Markhamira is also great because you can grow it in a coppice system, meaning if you cut it, it will re-sprout. While slow growing, podocarpus are used to mark the boundaries of fields. And eucalyptus is a great tree for lumber,firewood, and charcoal. Charcoal production for cooking for the nearby booming town of Bukavu is one of the main drivers of deforestation around and in the park. As the manager of the tree nursery told everyone waiting for trees, though, Euclyptus shouldn’t be planted in fields because it doesn’t work well with crops. As a condition to take home a Euclyptus tree, you must show the tree manager where you plan to plant it and because of the negative impacts of Euclyptus on the soil we only allow it on land that cannot be used for crops.
Strong Root also manages the only tree nursery in the Burhinyi Chiefdom, located near the Itombwe Nature Reserve. We began this tree nursery two years ago in our efforts to reduce pressure on the Burhinyi Community Forest, which is also home to Grauer’s gorillas and numerous endemic and endangered bird species. This year we distributed about 60,000 trees to surrounding villages. Some people had to walk up to 4 hours to get trees! We are hoping to install a second tree nursery next year to reduce this distance and reach a great number of people. We distribute the same tree species in Burhinyi as around Kahuzi-Biega, but because the climate is much colder due to the high elevation in the mountains we also grow pine trees.
Strong Roots could easily sell each of their seedlings for $1 a piece, but instead with support from Partners in Conservation we are able to distribute and plant them for free. The reason? It’s a win-win. People who are able to produce their own firewood, lumber, and organic material, no longer need to go into the park, reducing pressure on Kahuzi-Biega and people benefit immensely from increasing the number of trees on their land. In a sense, trees serve as a saving account. In times of financial need, you can cut a tree or two, and easily pay for food or medical bills. It provides extra income to families while also reducing degradation in the park. The trees are in such high demand that people from towns further away come and ask for trees, but because our goal is reduce pressures on Kahuzi-Biega we restrict tree distribution to the 7 villages surrounding the park. Strong Roots is happy that the tree nursery can improve livelihoods and help conserve the Grauer’s gorilla.
Knowing all of this, I wasn’t surprised to find a large crowd of people waiting for the tree distribution to begin when Strong Roots arrived in Miti. In Burhinyi, we had people knocking on our door at 5am asking when we would start the distribution! Men, women, and kids, gathered with baskets, buckets, and cement sacks, to haul their trees back to their fields. I was impressed by the ingenuity of people in transporting these heavy trees back home. I saw one women carry her baby on her head so she could carry her trees on her back. Another old man dragged the trees home in a cut off water jug. This was my first year attending the tree distribution so I was eager to talk with the people who came to collect trees. Why did they come? Why benefits did they trees give them? Was this there first time there? What tree species did they prefer?
Beatrice, the project manager for the tree nursery in Burhinyi, joined me in chatting with the people who were there. Leonard, a chief from a nearby vilalge, told us he came every year for new trees because there was a “….direct need for trees. If our wives enter the park for firewood they get arrested, if we enter to get wood for constructed we get sent to prison. If we have our own trees, we have no problem with the park.” Beatrice asked him what he would do until the trees he collected at the nursery were big enough to use. For him, he said, it was no problem, because he had other mature trees that he got from Strong Roots six years ago.
For Esperence, this was her first time collecting trees from Strong Roots. When asked why she came for trees she said “trees are important, they help bring rain and we can use them as fertilizer.” I asked her which were her favorite, which trees she preferred. Laughing at my question, she replied, “ they are all good, I cant have a favorite.”
Another man we chatted with jokingly told me, “There are three things every person should have in life; human rights, trees, and good sauce.” Not only did three local schools show up for trees in Buryhini, but the Mwami, the traditional chief of this area, asked for trees too! Having the Mwami’s support is a huge endorsement and will encourage further tree planting around the forest.
We found that beyond the direct benefits from trees, the tree nursery also employs community members. From filling the tree sachets with dirt, to helping collect branches and banana leaves for shade for the young seedlings, the community members are able to earn a small income working in the tree nursery. Women are the ones who largely come out to fill the tree sachets with dirt. However, the women did tell us that they would like to be employed full time in the nursery as well. They said they were no different, that they too could also manage the tree nursery and help out with work. Safi, our project coordinator for Kahuzi, immediately agreed and we are working on creating a more gender inclusive tree nursery for next year. Because of the high demand, we are also planning on doubling tree production next year and also incorporating several fruit trees.
If you visit Kahuzi- Biega, you can see all the trees that Strong Roots in helped plant. They line the roads, they line the fields, and serve as shades near the homes. Normally the main challenge for reforestation projects is convincing people to plant trees, but here, our challenge is trying to produce enough