Climate Change and Hunter-Gatherers in Montane Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
Global News
article written by MRI
27.08.21 | 01:08

Which impacts of climate change are already being felt in African mountains, and how are local communities adapting to them? Research recently published in the journal Climate and Development explores this question through the eyes of Twa hunter-gatherers living around Mount Kahuzi in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The mountains of Africa host a remarkable range of biodiversity and are home to over 200 million people, providing essential ecosystem services both to those living at higher elevations and those living downstream. They play an essential role in the provision of water and in food production, for example, thanks to their increased levels of rainfall and the high quality of their lands for agriculture. However, despite their importance, little is known about how climate change is already impacting African mountains and the people living on and around them – and which, if any, adaptation strategies are being adopted in response. New research published in the journal Climate and Development seeks to shed some light on this.

A different approach

“The fact that there are few studies documenting something does not mean that it is not happening,” says article co-author Aida Cuni-Sanchez, Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “There are few meteorological stations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This does not mean that, for example, rainfall patterns have not changed in the past 30 years. We therefore need to look for different approaches to document and understand climatic change, and in data-deficient areas indigenous knowledge can play a really important role to help understand the changes that have happened, and their impacts, so we can better plan how to cope with and adapt to these changes.”

To this end, researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with 100 Twa hunter-gatherers living around Mount Kahuzi in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Through another project focused on forest use, [paper lead author] Rodrigue Batumike and I started to study the Twa,” explains Cuni-Sanchez. “Given the great understanding the Twa had of forests and nature, I thought they could possibly report perceived changes in climate and their impacts.” In addition to interviewing the Twa, the researchers also organized ten focus-group discussions with local Tembo farmers living in the same area, and gathered historical data from Kamembe meteorological station.

3 Twa belongings and houses Batumike Rodrigue

Pictured: Twa hunter-gatherers and their houses. Image credit: Rodrigue Batumike.

Constrained adaptive capacity

In their interview responses, the Twa reported perceiving a reduction in rainfall and fog, accompanied by an increase in temperatures. According to them, these changes resulted in not only reduced crop yields but also less abundance of forest products such as honey, mushrooms, and caterpillars. This perception aligned with the outcomes of the focus-group discussions with the Tembo farmers, and with meteorological data on rainfall and temperature (no records on fog were available).

“We found that, although not well-documented due to there being few meteorological stations in the region, climatic changes have already been observed in the mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,” says Cuni-Sanchez. “And these-climatic changes not only affect crop yields, they also affect wild foods – something which was not documented in previous studies in the Albertine Rift Region.”

However, despite perceiving climatic change and its resulting impacts, the Twa did not report using any strategies to help them adapt. This was in contrast to the Tembo farmers, the researchers found. The Twa occupy a more precarious socioeconomic position, making them highly sensitive to climate change and constraining their adaptive capacity. “The marginalized Twa hunter-gatherers have limited options for adaptation, as they are landless and their forest foods are also affected by climate change. So we need to be innovative if we are to help them,” Cuni-Sanchez stresses.

2 Twa Belongings Batumike Rodrigue

Image credit: Rodrigue Batumike.

The researchers therefore recommend the use of a ‘science with society’ participatory approach to work with the Twa, the Tembo, and other ethnic groups on developing and implementing climate change adaptation measures. And there is much more to be done, Cuni-Sanchez says: “More research is needed on climatic changes and their impacts in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, so that we understand which factors drive, for example, lower crop yields and reduced forest foods.”

Indeed, the research team plans a similar survey of communities living in the Itombwe Mountains, located in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, undertaking this research is proving challenging. “Because of insecurity – there are armed rebel groups in the Itombwe Mountains – the villages we wanted to interview are deserted. We have to wait for the situation to cool down before we can go. Clearly climate change and its impacts are not the only challenges these communities are facing.”

Read more: Batumike, R., Bulonvu, F., Imani, G., Akonkwa, D., Gahigi, A., Klein, J. A., Marchant, R.*, and Cuni-Sanchez, A. ‘Climate change and hunter-gatherers in montane eastern DR Congo.’ Climate and Development (2021):

*MRI SLC Member