CIFOR offers Congolese students an invaluable experience

Kisangani, DR Congo. 12 June 2014. Thanks to the last-minute efforts of CIFOR’s staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the coordination unit of its project, Forest and Climate Change in the Congo (FCCC), about 100 BSc, MSc and PhD students at the University of Kisangani – nearly a quarter of them women – were able to profit from a series of quality lectures this week on forest-related and biodiversity themes. Many were students benefiting from FCCC financial support to undertake graduate studies. Other achievements of the project were also in evidence in the facilities in which the students gathered. Because of infrastructural improvements made as part of the FCCC project funded by the European Union, they were able to fill to capacity a well-equipped, wifi-endowed classroom in the newly renovated “Blue House” on the university campus.

The lecturers included CIFOR’s Andrew Wardell, FCCC project leader who delivered no fewer than four lectures on a variety of topics, ranging from 250 years of foreign land acquisitions in Ghana, to the effect of increased globalized trade and investment on forests. CIFOR’s Guillaume Lescuyer laid out the results of a new CIFOR publication on the importance of artisanal logging and milling in DRC, and Edmond Dounias of the French Institute of Research for Development (IRD) and Senior Associate Researcher at CIFOR, spoke about the value of traditional ecological knowledge in monitoring climate change.

Other presentations covered a wide range of topics, from the biodiversity of a smallpox-related disease known as “monkeypox”, to the biodiversity of trees in Central Africa. Scholars from one of CIFOR’s partners, the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL), examined legal and policy aspects of biodiversity and climate change in the Congo Basin.

The lecture series was organized to complement the first-ever International Conference on Biodiversity in the Congo Basin, organized by the University of Kisangani, the Center for Biodiversity Surveillance, and a host of Belgian funding partners. More than 200 delegates from around the world attended the conference. Andrew Wardell delivered one of four keynote speeches – “Management of Congo Basin Forest Resources: The Quest for Sustainability” – drawing on more than 20 years of research by both CIFOR and CIRAD scientists in the Congo Basin.

A lack of space meant that many who wished to attend the conference were unable to do so. Aware of the widespread disappointment of both students and professors, CIFOR scientist Jan Kennis and the FCCC project coordination unit quickly came up with a solution by putting together a program of selected speakers for a side event to accommodate the students.

In a meeting with Andrew Wardell, the Rector of the University of Kisangani, Professor Faustin Toengaho Lokundo, expressed gratitude to CIFOR and the FCCC project for ensuring that an important segment of the student population were able to benefit from the presence of so many internationally renowned scientists on their campus. Otherwise, he said, they would have felt “excluded” because they were unable to attend the actual Conference, the largest the university has ever hosted in its 51-year history.

“For me, it was extremely important to attend this CIFOR event,” said Marie-Bernard Dhedya, who is beginning his PhD at the university with financial support from FCCC. “I work on land tenure conflicts and with each presentation, I realized that I needed to look at new and different aspects of the issue, trying to get a historical perspective and also ensure I get a community perspective as I undertake my research.”

CIFOR also arranged to record all the presentations so that they could be used later for pedagogical purposes at universities in Kisangani, Goma and Bukavu, all of which benefit from financial and pedagogical support from CIFOR’s FCCC project.

The Biodiversity Conference and the CIFOR side event were rare treats for staff and students of the University in Kisangani, a city located more than 2,000 kilometers inland from the capital, Kinshasa, which suffered enormously during the country’s civil war and even today, can still only be reached by highly irregular and unreliable flights or by a long and arduous journey on the Congo River.