The traditional method of farming in the region involves the cutting and burning of trees and other vegetation to clear plots for the growing of crops. After several plantings, the topsoil is depleted and the farmer moves deeper into the forest and repeats the process.
Large cleared areas are too hot and dry to allow for the re-growth of natural forest vegetation. Barren areas, unable to regenerate, are subject to erosion and further deterioration. Fields are nutritionally exhausted after two years of agricultural use and may take fifteen years to recover enough nutrients to be planted again. During the fallow period, a tough grass covers the ground and is very difficult to remove. It is easier for the farmer to cut more rainforest than to remove the deep-rooted grass.
On a small scale, this traditional farming practice had not previously had a large impact on the environment. With the recent and substantial influx of refugees and immigrants into the Ituri Forest, more sustained damage to the ecosystem is rapidly occurring. The Okapi Conservation Project’s agro-forestry program is assisting farmers in improving crop yield and reclaiming fallow fields on a shorter rotation timetable, thus minimizing the destruction of the rainforest.
The OCP Agro-Forestry Team has introduced an alternative in the form of nitrogen fixing plants called legumes. The Leucaena tree can increase crop yields by 25% and extend the productivity of the soil for another 3-4 years when planted between rows of crops. When fields are rested, the Leucaena trees grow very fast, and shade out invading grasses and improve the quality of the soil by naturally adding nitrogen, an important nutrient for growing crops. Using this technique, the land can be returned to agricultural use within 3 years instead of the 15 years experienced with more traditional farming methods. This significantly slows the spread of slash and burn practices into the forest. The leucaena trees, when cut back for new crop plantings, provide timber for building materials, firewood, and browse for goats.
OCP staff members train the local farmers how to use the agro-forestry trees to improve crop production. Interest in the program is very high. Villagers that visit the demonstration farms are very impressed with the quality and quantity of the yields. Once in the program, farmers can produce their own seeds. The local people appreciate the help they receive in improving their food production and are more inclined to be supportive of the rules and restrictions that protect the forest from over exploitation. A long-term goal is to introduce the seeds and techniques into larger towns east of the Reserve where most of the forest has been cut down, thus reducing immigration pressure that threatens the forest as people move in search of more productive land.
Three nurseries operated by OCP in the towns of Epulu, Wamba, and Mambasa provide plant stock for the farmers. Additional nurseries in other towns around the Reserve are under construction. To help satisfy the growing demand for the new agro-forestry techniques, the Okapi Conservation Project is currently training additional nursery workers and starting a pilot program to have knowledgeable farmers in each village around the Reserve. Agro-forestry continues to be a main topic of seminars presented by the Project’s education team as they travel around the Reserve. Under the umbrella of the agro-forestry program, trees are being planted in the town centers of Mambasa and Wamba to provide shade and relief for the eyes of the local inhabitants.
Agro-forestry team members grow seedlings of several species of forest trees in specially constructed, shaded plots. When they reach sufficient size the young trees are re-planted in abandoned crop plots in the forest. Local people, including school students, are hired to reclaim old farm plots and illegally logged forest tracts.
Experimental gardens in Epulu and around the Reserve demonstrate techniques such as raised beds, natural fertilizers, crop rotation, and synergistic crop groupings. New crops that are shade tolerant and replenish soil nutrients (eggplant, cabbage, soy beans, tomatoes, carrots, rice, onions, and new species of beans that cook faster and require less firewood) are well-received by farmers eager to improve their yields. By reclaiming old crop fields, less land is needed by the farmers to feed their families. Not having to move deeper into the forest for fertile land avoids problems with elephants and monkeys raiding the crops. By practicing agro-forestry and planting new types of crops, people can grow more than they need and have a surplus crop to sell or trade. These new crops, such as the soy beans, contain protein, essential for fulfilling dietary needs.
The agro-forestry program has been influential in making inroads into some of the areas around the Reserve that have not previously been supportive of the Project’s conservation efforts. With better technologies at hand to make their lives easier and healthier, an increasing number of residents around the Reserve are seeing tangible evidence of the direct benefits of cooperating with efforts to protect the environment for their families and the wildlife.
Over 180 farmers and their families, including 198 hectares of farm acreage benefitted under agro-forestry management in 2010. Four agro-forestry 1 hectare community fields of cassava were established, three in agriculture zones in Bapukeli, Molokay and Ekwe (in the reserve) and the fourth plot located outside the reserve at Kero-Zanzibar.