Travels in the Congo: First Things First

The ExCiteS team in the Congolese forest

So, I’ve been travelling and working in the Congo for about a month now and I already have an awful lot to write about – both the awesome and the not-so-awesome. But before I launch into posts about corruption, inequality and diminishing biodiversity I wanted to start with something positive. And since I haven’t blogged for a while because of the whole load of “life” that’s been happening to me over the past six months I guess it might be a good idea to explain a bit about why I’m here and what I’m doing. But first things first – because I know it’s what you’re all wondering, and I don’t intend to bring up the subject again in this blog: Yes, I am in the Congo and no – I haven’t seen anyone drink Um Bongo. I don’t expect I ever will. Sorry Children of the 80s – advertising lies.

Right, now that inevitability is out of the way, let’s get down to business. For the past two years I’ve been studying a

Tree trunks waiting to be processed, Tala Tala

part-time Masters in Anthropology, Environment and Development at University College London. Being the massive geek that I am, my principal research interests lie in the application of digital technologies in development and conservation projects – so for my dissertational research I have been lucky enough to be invited to accompany a team from the UCL Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) Research Group as they develop and test a smartphone application that can be used by local farming communities and hunter-gatherer populations in the Republic of Congo to map the natural resources they use and record evidence of illegal logging. The idea is to develop a system of participative forest management in which local people can play an important role – by giving direct feedback on the behaviour of the logging companies who control the areas in which they live to the local watchdog IO-FLEG (Independent Observation – Forest Law Enforcement and Governance). Up until now, these communities have seen little benefit from the logging that takes place in their localities (despite the timber industry being the second most important source of income for Congo after oil) have had little say in how the logging concessions are managed, and have no recourse if a forestry company cuts down some of the resources on which they depend for their day-to-day needs. The ExCiteS project, run in conjunction with the local watchdog, seeks to capitalise on the introduction of the new EU FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) law in the Congo. The Congolose FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement accords a number of new rights to local communities, and places obligations on logging companies vis-a-vis the local population.

A colleague explains the decision tree using large versions of the icons

The mission at this stage is to test the software, which uses an icon-based decision tree to enable users to record the position of key resources or incidents of illegal logging via GPS. As we are working with remote communities who don’t have access to electricity, and most of whom will never have used a phone or a computer interface previously, it is important to ensure that the software is usable – what might seem intuitive to someone who uses computers everyday may not be at all intuitive to a forest hunter-gatherer. Because the software is intended for use by anyone – including people who are illiterate and innumerate – there is no text and no numbers, only pictures. However, pictures are not uncomplicated either – because we will be working with communities who are not used to working with 2D representations of objects and situations, the way the pictures are drawn are important. Cartoons are not likely to be understandable – previous projects in this region and in Cameroon (mostly by my MSc supervisor – you can read all about him here) have found that simple line drawings in the correct proportions are most effective. But even then someone who doesn’t know the context well can make big mistakes as to what are the most important features of a given wild fruit or plantation crop or animal so its vital to get feedback from the end users to make sure the drawings are meaningful.

A group of women learn how to use the software

However, the most important thing to test is the relevance of the software itself to the people it is designed for – do they want to participate in forest management? Do they believe there is value in making a map of their resources that outside actors can understand? And if they are to participate in a project of participative forest management like this, what are the terms on which that participation will take place? Both participation and technology have been hailed at various points in the history of conservation and development as panaceas for the ills of the world – however in reality things are never that simple and often projects based on one or the other can end up doing more harm than good. And that’s where my MSc research comes in – I need to understand the opinions of our “end users” regarding: their current situation in the landscape of forest management in Congo; what the software the UCL team has developed could do for them; and how they would want to engage with a larger project if they are, as we hope, interested in being involved. I also need to understand the context in which these interactions are situated – who are the other stakeholders and what are their points of view? How would a potential project like this interact with the law? What would we need to do to ensure that participation at the grassroots is meaningful and not just a vehicle to further extend outside control over natural resources? It’s a lot of questions for six weeks, but so far research seems to be progressing pretty well – stick around and I’ll let you know in more detail how I’m getting on…

(NB. All photos in this post are by my colleague Matthias Stevens. They are reproduced here with his permission and copyright belongs to him. I have been shooting in RAW, but my netbook can’t really handle my digital darkroom. I’ll post up some galleries when I get back…)

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