Challenges of rapid urban-based expansion in Kinshasa, DRC and where nature can play a role

Challenges of rapid urban-based expansion in Kinshasa, DRC and where nature can play a role

Daniel Syauswa SJ

The Jesuits in Kinshasa, DR Congo (DRC) have major forested lands with a beautiful canopy of more than 30 meters high on the hills above Kinshasa, the capital city, for around 130 years. Today, this area is now considered as Metro Kinshasa and increasingly overran by an ever-expanding population that reduced the forested area to 10% due to the harvesting of trees for charcoal production.

Kinshasa is the largest city in DRC, and the metro area population is 20 million, growing exponentially over the last 25 years. Half of Kinshasa residents are aged below 22 years.

The challenges are complex, massive and multiple, so where one starts is a matter of context and the faith of a mustard seed. Where does the challenge start, and most importantly, where is it we act?

Université Loyola du Congo, the Jesuit university with its faculties of engineering, philosophy, agroecology, and soon the social sciences and business school for mining (and social and ecological accountability) is located on top of the hills to the south of the city. Given the rapid human occupation of the lands, erosion is rapid and especially critical for the school buildings that are at risk as the road tracks become rivers.

Natural forest in the hills of Manresa Spirituality Center where the planting of fast-growing tree species such as Acacia mangium and Acacia auriculiformis gives renewed cover on the slopes.

Two programs have emerged in recent years.

The first one involves the protection of the remaining forest and the assisted tree regeneration of about 10 hectares of the sloping lands. Various local trees are planted, such as African oil bean (Pentaclethra macrophylla), exotic tree species like Acacia mangium and Acacia auriculiformis (earleaf acacia), and different ground cover. As the dry season expands, fires are a constant challenge for this area.

Planting of fruit trees is considered important in addressing local community benefits and also creating products of added value by the student-run canteen. The African oil bean (Pentaclethra macrophylla) is a key indigenous species for the slopes.

While this work is ongoing, the limited infrastructure of the city affected the road reaching the area. The road badly needed repair to maintain access to the university and to service local population of about 60,000 in the six quartier (neighborhoods).

Dirt road turns into a river when the rains set in.

The Jesuits campaigned for a government response to this concern, and the challenge was to source the needed filling material of about 200,000 tons. The cost of hauling from 15 kilometers away by the government-contracted Chinese operator was prohibitive. What to do so that the infrastructure will be built? The Jesuits offered the available soil in their lands, excavation began, and the road was completed in 2023.

There is extensive planting of vetiver grass in the extracted area.

Sandbagging and planting of vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) are also undertaken as part of the area’s rehabilitation, but have proved completely inadequate. The vetiver does not grow well on the slopes due to the extended dry season, but thrives in the base area where the water lasts longer. It was not possible to “level” the land and the massive trench created cannot be filled with any adequate material.

This in turn led to a new project involving the use of nature-based solutions with the city and national government, and with support from the World Bank.

This second program intends to work with the wealth of experience of forest regeneration on the slopes and will focus on native trees and fruit trees for the benefit of the communities in the area. Contour trenches are also dug every 10 to 15 meters to assist the rapid infiltration of heavy rain downpours that rapidly erode the lands.

The long-term goal, in the decades ahead, is to regenerate the landscape. And the challenge is in engaging the present generations of young people to adopt new attitudes to the urban environment, and in a climate crisis that needs greater actions to reduce negative local impacts.

Daniel Syauswa Musondoli SJ, PhD is a professor of agroforestry at the Université Loyola du Congo in Kinshasa, DRC.

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