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Dominique Bikaba

Working towards a brighter future

Strong Roots is not just the name of Dominique Bikaba’s NGO, which he founded in 2009 and whose work earned him a Whitley Award (also known as the "Green Oscars" of the conservation world) in 2018. Born in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is to this region – his homeland – that Dominique has dedicated his life’s work.

Rich in biodiversity but also rocked by years of political unrest, the forests that Dominique grew up in are home to the world’s last surviving eastern lowland gorillas, as well as local communities and indigenous peoples who each day face a struggle to survive. Dominique knows better than anyone that the DRC’s great apes won’t thrive unless people thrive alongside them. Strong Roots brings the services of the forest – food, fuel, and building materials – to local communities through reforestation, community forestry and sustainable farming, while ensuring the forests’ wildlife remains protected.

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Dominique has an extensive professional background in conservation, and holds a Master’s degree in Ecosystem Conservation and Management from Yale University. He has served local, national and international organisations in and outside the DRC, including the United Nations Development Programme. Thanks to Dominique and his team at Strong Roots, the people of the eastern DRC are becoming increasingly empowered, allowing them to pursue sustainable livelihoods and, as a result, ensure the survival of the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla.

Interview with Dominique

Could you tell us briefly about the work done by yourself and Strong Roots in the Democratic Republic of Congo? What are the key projects that you focus on?

All our programs focus on the conservation of eastern lowland gorillas (also known as Grauer’s gorillas), as our mission is to save great apes from extinction. In addition to our sustainable conservation work with the known habitats and populations of eastern lowland gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve, we have been working on a key corridor project to connect these protected areas and the remaining populations of great apes in the landscape, bringing about 300,000 hectares of forest to conservation. This corridor is composed of seven community forests and is home to great apes and other taxa. We are working with the government of DRC, local communities and indigenous peoples (and their rulers), as well as other conservation bodies and community leaders to have this area as a community-based conserved area by 2020.

For four years, three groups of gorillas (26 individuals) have been being monitored by a 6-person Great Ape Monitoring Team composed mostly of former hunters in Burhinyi Community Forest, one of the seven community forests composing the corridor. The eastern lowland gorilla, an endemic and critically endangered gorilla subspecies, has dramatically declined in eastern DRC (from about 17,000 individuals in 1998 to fewer than 4,000 animals in 2016) due to habitat loss, mining, poaching, the wildlife trade, and rampant poverty among the local peoples living in the surrounding habitat. Community livelihood projects include reforestation, where more than 1.3 million trees have been planted (between 2010 and 2017) in a region where 98.6% of fuel comes from wood and where the annual population growth is 4%. Livelihood projects for food security include capacity development for agricultural techniques and access to improved seeds. Strong Roots works with 837 smallholders in the corridor, where they have increased their crop production for the last five years to 68.9% for food security, and about 41.7% among the Batwa (indigenous) peoples around Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Other projects include livestock activities with farmers and park rangers and organising the Kahuzi-Biega park rangers’ wives into a co-op to improve their family revenue. Support from Strong Roots has allowed these women to organise a microcredit project, manage a cassava grinding mill at the park and run a small restaurant at the park’s headquarters. Education is key! In addition to Strong Roots’ Kahuzi-Biega Environmental School, our Environmental Education Program works with 21 schools around Kahuzi-Biega National Park and seven schools around Itombwe Nature Reserve. By doing so we raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the eastern lowland gorilla, the expected contributions and required actions from all stakeholders, and how science and new technologies in conjunction with traditional knowledge can help to reverse the decline of great apes in eastern DRC.

The people and wildlife of the eastern DRC are obviously close to your heart. What experiences have led you to dedicate your work to this region in particular?

I was born within this forest, which today is the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. This is the region which nourished my conservation ambitions, in addition to the love and respect for nature that my grandmother (who raised me) gradually built inside me. For years, and since my childhood, she would take me into the forest for several hours a day, a forest in which she couldn’t have access to natural resources anymore, after they were expulsed from there along with the Batwa pygmies (indigenous peoples of the DRC). They lost these traditional lands on which they lived, and from which they collected everything they needed for their lives.

I saw all kinds of wildlife inhabiting Kahuzi-Biega since my childhood. From elephants to baboons, through to chimpanzees and gorillas, all these animals were feeding on our farms around the park and other surrounding farms. Only baboons are still found to raid crops on farms around Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and gorillas and bush pigs around Itombwe Nature Reserve. This region is the sole area, worldwide, which the eastern lowland gorilla inhabits. If they become extinct here, they will be gone forever!

Once in life, this region provided financial incentives to local peoples in the form of gorilla tourism at Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Both the park and surrounding communities benefitted from the tourism industry. All these aspects are still fresh in my memory! As I grew up and was educated, I learnt and understood how these programs should be well managed to reduce any negative impact on the forest and the local cultures and traditions. I grew up together with this region’s conservation programs… the park was created in 1970 and I was born there in 1972. And since 1992, I started working on this park’s conservation programs, until now. I have combined my studies with my conservation work, since then.

For years, the eastern DRC has been rocked by civil unrest and armed conflict, leading to people exploiting natural resources in order to survive. How do Strong Roots help these people to make a change and start living harmoniously with the natural world?

Coltan for eastern lowland gorillas in DRC is what palm oil has been for orangutans in Indonesia. Extractive industries have their sociology, totally different from conservation bodies. For the first one, natural resources, including humans, can be destroyed to make money… whereas for the second, money is useless when its sourcing origin affects species and human rights. There is no conservation without respecting human rights. Any conservation action which does not care about human rights is another form of extractive industry. Any conservation program which does not focus on local peoples’ wellbeing is working for species decline. Otherwise, for whom would this conservation be conserving? This has been the trend of most existing conservation programs.

Globally, the rate of deforestation and species decline is alarming. I concur in some ways that population growth rate which brings in increased demand for natural resources and for new settlement lands might be a driver, but I also strongly believe that conservation models should be reviewed; along with the way of looking at local peoples in conservation. How can we prevent a local community member from hunting an antelope for subsistence, but allow hunting games on elephants for sports and fun? Why do we call one “poaching” and the other “hunting”? Who does “poaching” and who does “hunting”, while one kills a non-protected animal for subsistence and the other kills a protected animal for fun?

Although this situation is not yet exactly the same where Strong Roots is conducting conservation programs in eastern DRC, most of the effects of political unrest on natural resources were not only conducted by local peoples. Most of this was conducted by armed troops, supervising mineral exploitation inside protected areas, directly killing gorillas and trading wildlife and trophies, and committing exaction on local community members.

As for the exploitation of natural resources by local peoples in order to survive, Strong Roots works with community members to create alternative resources that they can source in the forest for food. These are the main reasons for developing sustainable ways to secure food through farming and animal husbandry programs, as detailed above.

In addition to internal conflicts, the international demand for rare minerals used in electronics is compounding the DRC’s humanitarian and conservation crises. Is there a way to procure these minerals safely and sustainably? If not, what can we do to ensure the products we use are free from these “conflict minerals”?

The eastern lowland gorilla and other taxa in eastern DRC share their habitat with important and strategic minerals which the “high tech” world today depends on. We have worked hard with other civilian society members inside and outside DRC to get the Dodd-Frank Act passed in the USA in 2010, which has tremendously affected the mineral industry in eastern DRC. The reason why I supported this American law (as I travelled to the US to testify before the US Congress to support) was that it provided incentives for security even though it didn’t for socioeconomic alternatives of local and artisanal miners who were losing markets for their products. For me, security comes before economics!

The mineral and mining site certification process in DRC today is an outcome of this initiative. While we need these minerals to maintain the growing markets and needs in new technologies, it is possible to source them responsibly and maintain the environment intact while contributing to the local development of areas where they are exploited. As biodiversity zoning has been put underway in the region, no mineral exploitation should be allowed in protected areas. And where applicable, only artisanal (small-scale) mining should be conducted in protected areas of IUCN Category VI. This implies an urgent need of mining and conservation stakeholders in designing areas for mineral exploitation, areas with less concern of biodiversity conservation.

What do Strong Roots do to assist with the particular challenges faced by the indigenous communities of the DRC?

Since Strong Roots’ inception in 2009, Strong Roots has been advocating for the Batwa pygmies, who have been expulsed from Kahuzi-Biega when it became a national park, to be granted indemnity. In the meantime, Strong Roots has purchased 10 hectares of land for the Batwa pygmies of the Buyungule village to grow crops. These peoples have been out of the forest for more than three generations now, without access to any land. In areas where new protected areas are projected (government- or community-based), we have supported indigenous peoples and local communities to access collective land tenure security, and ensure that rights of governance and management are handled by these peoples on their traditional lands.

You were the recipient of a 2018 Whitley Award for helping to ensure the survival of the eastern lowland (or Grauer’s) gorilla. In your eyes, what is the greatest value of wildlife conservation?

There is a direct interdependence between wildlife itself and between wildlife and the forest, and then between surrounding local communities and indigenous peoples for several different ecosystem services. The greatest value of wildlife conservation is any incentive their existence might provide to these local peoples. That can be direct financial incentives, cultural values or the pride of preserving an endemic species. While the ecosystem’s functional value is highly important, it is less known or comprehended by most of its stakeholders.

Do conservationists face particular challenges when protecting the eastern lowland gorilla, compared to other gorillas and other primates?

The types of challenges differ from stable periods to periods of political unrest. As the region is gaining stability, the main challenge conservationists are facing is being the target of some (remaining) armed troops, mining companies and (corrupt) officials for being an obstacle to their business. Eastern lowland gorillas inhabit very remote areas of difficult access, where it requires strong resources to proceed. The easiest area of the eastern lowland gorillas’ habitat (for driving and walking) is the highland part of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the only area of their habitat where gorillas have been habituated to human presence for tourism purposes. Back in 1972, this was the first area, worldwide, where gorillas were habituated for tourism.

In one of your most significant achievements, you convinced the residents of the Burhinyi Community Forest to commit 3,000km2 to great ape conservation. Could you explain how this was done?

Burhinyi Community Forest is one of the seven community forests forming the 3,000km2 corridor connecting Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve. The corridor spans the Burhinyi, Lwindi, Basile, Itombwe and Wamuzimu chiefdoms in Mwenga Territory; Basile chiefdom in Shabunda Territory; and Ngweshe chiefdom in Walungu Territory, in the eastern DRC’s South Kivu Province. The process of titling these community forests and declaring the area as a community-conserved corridor is underway. This project was launched in 2010 by Strong Roots. At this time, there was no legal basis to handle “community forestry” in DRC. In 2012 we started pushing the DRC government to pass a law on community forestry, where local communities and indigenous peoples would legally handle management and governance of their traditional lands for conservation ends, a law which passed in DRC in August 2014. The process includes biological inventories on the area, regular socioeconomic surveys, and mapping and community livelihood improvement, in addition to the official process by the Government of DRC.

How do you balance the needs of local communities with those of the forests and wildlife that they share the land with?

By designing conservation programs that involve traditional knowledge in formal (conventional) conservation approaches, based on the survival needs of local peoples. This is a complex process of conservation program design and I would be happy to provide additional detailed information for those who contact me at bikaba@strongrootscongo.org.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

Professor Juichi Yamagiwa. He started studying eastern lowland gorillas in 1978 as an intern from Kyoto University, and still continues this even as the current president of the university. Not all researchers, conservationists or conservation donors have that long-term commitment to a given species.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

One was visiting Edinburgh Zoo in 2008. I never supported animals in captivity until I visited Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, even though I helped launch the CRPL Liwro (a sanctuary for chimpanzees and other primates in eastern DRC) in 2006. I quit the CRPL management and brought Coopera, a Spanish organisation, to manage the sanctuary because having animals in captivity was a crime for me. But when I saw how many people came to the zoo and learned about animals, that educational component of it touched my soul. Since then, CRPL Lwiro as been instrumental in educating people in eastern DRC about primates and the threats they are facing.

But my best natural world experience to date has been visiting Yellowstone National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) during my attendance at the International Seminar on Protected Area Management (ISPAM) in 2011, as before I had to study bison in the region for my Masters’ Degree in Ecosystem Conservation and Management at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Visiting this park, which I had in my mind as the first established ‘national park’, worldwide, gave a different perspective on looking at conservation, or what I would understand as ‘modern conservation’. I have to remember how many people visit the park per day, where more than 95% visit from inside their cars. The infrastructure built inside the park is incredible, including gas stations for visitors’ vehicles.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Humans are part of nature, not enemies of nature. Primitive conservation will never be effective if conservation programs continue in not considering humans as elements of biodiversity to preserve. I guess the sole modern conservation has failed, looking at the rate of deforestation and species extinction, worldwide.