Proximate Causes of Forest Degradation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Vary in Space and Time


Forest degradation, generally defined as a reduction in the delivery of forest ecosystem services, can have long-term impacts on biodiversity, climate, and local livelihoods. The quantification of forest degradation, its dynamics and proximate causes can help prompt early action to mitigate carbon emissions and inform relevant land use policies. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is largely forested with a relatively low deforestation rate, but anthropogenic degradation has been increasing in recent years. We assess the impact of eight independent variables related to land cover, land use, infrastructure, armed conflicts, and accessibility on forest degradation, measured by the Forest Condition (FC) index, a measure of forest degradation based on biomass history and fragmentation that ranges from 0 (completely deforested) to 100 (intact). We employ spatial panel models with fixed effects using regular 25 × 25 km units over five 3-year intervals from 2002 to 2016. The regression results suggest that the presence of swamp ecosystems, low access (defined by high travel time), and forest concessions are associated with lower forest degradation, while built up area, fire frequency, armed conflicts result in greater forest degradation. The impact of neighboring units on FC shows that all variables within the 50 km spatial neighborhood have a greater effect on FC than the on-site spatial determinants, indicating the greater influence of drivers beyond the 25 km<sup>2</sup> unit. In the case of protected areas, we unexpectedly find that protection in neighboring locations leads to higher forest degradation, suggesting a potential leakage effect, while protected areas in the local vicinity have a positive influence on FC. The Mann-Kendall trend statistic of occurrences of fires and conflicts over the time period and until 2020 show that significant increases in conflicts and fires are spatially divergent. Overall, our results highlight how assessing the proximate causes of forest degradation with spatiotemporal analysis can support targeted interventions and policies to reduce forest degradation but spillover effects of proximal drivers in neighboring areas need to be considered.

Frontiers in Conservation Science