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DRC: how damage to biodiversity affects eating habits

In the region of the Luki Biosphere Reserve, eating habits have changed profoundly since the end of the 1970s.

The natural resources in the world are facing many anthropogenic pressures, with the impact of the decline of biodiversity and negative effects on the food security in developing countries.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a country in Central Africa whose population has been estimated at over 100 million inhabitants in 2020, with three-quarters living below the poverty line. Like most countries in Central Africa, the population of the DRC is highly dependent on forest resources for its survival, resulting in the degradation of soils and natural vegetation, but also the habitat fragmentation and deforestation.

It is in this context that we conducted, at theRegional postgraduate school for integrated planning and management of forests and tropical territories, a study on changes in food habits in the region of the Luki Biosphere Reserve (RBL), western DRC.

Once prosperous, this region is experiencing economic difficulties as well as a deterioration of the living conditions of its population, all this in a context of demographic pressure. Among the consequences, the excessive exploitation of forest resources, the loss of natural habitats and defaunation, which have led to a transformation in the diet of the population.

Our work aimed to highlight this change in behavior, particularly in terms of animal protein foods with regard to the uncertain nature of the availability of game as reported by the population and the increasingly expensive cost of living. But also to better understand the anthropogenic practices that have an impact on the natural habitats of wildlife.

Location of Luki on the southern edge of the Mayombe forest massif (dotted line).
Lubini, 1997, Provided by the author

A survey conducted in 12 villages

The population of the RBL region was estimated in 2020 at 237. This region has known in the past a flourishing economy linked in particular to industrial logging which offered employment to the populations, but also to the cultivation of coffee, cocoa, oil palm, bananas and rubber. .

Today, people live there mainly from subsistence agriculture practiced by slash and burn, the production of charcoal, small livestock and the collection of non-timber forest products, some of which have recently aroused growing interest in the consumption by the local population.

We conducted our survey in January 2021 in 12 villages in the RBL, conducting 19 focus groups with a total of 115 people, including those aged 45 and over. We asked them about the new foods consumed in the region and the reasons behind this evolution.

By collecting secondary data from the literature, we identified the factors that are unfavorable to the natural habitats of wildlife in the study area and those that encourage their sustainability.

Caterpillars, cats, snakes, imported chickens...

A total of 21 novel foods were cited. Of these, 14 come from samples taken from the natural environment (plant formations: caterpillars, snails, snakes, frogs, lignicolous fungi, Gnetum africanum, ferns and farmland – bean, cowpea, cowpea leaves, sesame, sweet potato leaves, sugar cane alcohol, maize paste), 5 from import (imported chickens, turkey tails, fish scales fish, horse mackerel and Maggi cube) and 2 come from animals in the human environment (dogs and cats).

Of the 19 focus groups held, caterpillars were listed 18 times, cats and snakes 14 times each, imported chicken 10 times, snails 6 times, dogs and horse mackerel fish 6 times as well. The dogs and cats consumed are not domesticated but strays.

According to the data collected, most of these new foods provide animal protein. Vegetables (sweet potato leaves, fern, cowpea leaves, etc.) showed only low occurrences. This could be explained by the existence in the region of several other locally consumed vegetables.

New foods consumed in the RBL region, reported by 115 people in 19 focus groups.
Provided by the author

Adults on the front line

For the people who responded to the survey, these foods were not consumed before for several reasons: the game fauna, the presence of many fish in the rivers of the study area, a flourishing economy linked to the existence in the region, of several farm businesses.

All this contributed to the circulation of money and a more reassuring level of income. This allowed them to diversify their source of animal protein (consumption of fish from the Congo River and salted fish sold by the Portuguese from Angola), to take small amounts from the natural environment and to build granaries of grains and tubers. The economic prosperity of the region as a whole and the existence of passable roads favoring the easy flow of agricultural products were also mentioned.

According to the information collected, the change in eating behavior mainly affects people between 20 and 50 years old, with an average age around 35 years old. Consumption of these foods, especially caterpillars, has also been reported in children, when the elderly are least affected. The strong involvement of young people demonstrates their ability to adapt to socio-environmental changes.

Changes since the 1980s

This change in eating habits was observed between 1979 and 2006. Accentuated from the 1990s, the phenomenon would have amplified in 2006, with regard to the number of answers attributed to the years of this period by the interviewees.

To understand this, it is necessary to know that the period 1979-1987 was characterized by climatic events, in particular drought, with a negative impact on agricultural production. The decade 1990-2000 was then marked by the beginning of a socio-political and economic crisis in the country.

The massive influx of people from other regions and easier access to the news media, by bringing about a mix of cultures, also played a role.

Period of onset of change in eating habits in the RBL region, reported by 115 people in 19 focus groups.
Provided by the author

Understand the origin of damage

Several studies carried out specifically in this region describe the drivers of natural resource loss and also specify the actions taken to remedy.

Among the reasons cited: the lack of governance highlighting the conflicts of competence between the managers of the reserve, the non-involvement of the local population in a participatory management process, the claims of the land territory by the local population and the use of the reserve for political strategies.

Other studies evoke the strong anthropization, marked by the changes land use and the deforestation that would be underpinned by incomplete governance and poverty]. Changes in the local climate also explain this loss of forest cover in a context where farmers have a limited ability to detect and adapt to certain climatic phenomena.

Between 2002 and 2020, land surface temperatures have increased by 4,03°C, 4,74°C, 3,3°C, 1,49°C in Tsumba Kituti, Kisavu, Kimbuya, Kiobo respectively, villages in the reserve.

The degradation of wildlife habitat is noticeable. That of Luki and its surroundings is thus dominated by rodents, considered here as being a bio-indicator of the anthropization of the environment. This would justify the rarity of declared game in discussion groups and the adoption of new dietary behaviors in the search for animal protein. Rodents are among the most hunted wildlife species.

Ways to restore biodiversity

Faced with the loss of biodiversity in the region, numerous supports have been provided since 2004. These have enabled the implementation of restoration activities and alternatives to the use of forest resources. These include, among others, reforestation and agroforestry, assisted natural regeneration or the installation of model farms in which agricultural sedentarization practices are promoted. Particular emphasis is placed on beekeeping in apicultural fallows in because of the bee potential of the RBL region.

Restoration activities in degraded areas in the RBL region are carried out through payments for environmental services. This has made it possible to date to install around the reserve an area of ​​around 8 hectares of naturally regenerating forests, or about a third of the total area of ​​the reserve, which is 33 hectares. The RBL region could therefore be a model to be replicated across the country, but also to be taken into account in a carbon credit process.

These initiatives launched by NGOs with the financial support of donors are encouraging but insufficient. In order to achieve the conservation objective of the RBL, measures should also be initiated that focus on education, youth employment, taking into account local knowledge through projects, family planning and the implementation of a development plan with actions in favor of local communities.

It would also involve integrating food taken from the wild (caterpillars, snails, etc.) into management measures to combat food insecurity, but also developing awareness of the risks of zoonotic diseases.

Ernestine Lonpi Teepee, PhD candidate, research assistant, ERAIFT

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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