The people and wildlife of the eastern DRC are obviously close to your heart. What experiences have led you to dedicate your work to this region in particular?
I was born within this forest, which today is the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. This is the region which nourished my conservation ambitions, in addition to the love and respect for nature that my grandmother (who raised me) gradually built inside me. For years, and since my childhood, she would take me into the forest for several hours a day, a forest in which she couldn’t have access to natural resources anymore, after they were expulsed from there along with the Batwa pygmies (indigenous peoples of the DRC). They lost these traditional lands on which they lived, and from which they collected everything they needed for their lives.
I saw all kinds of wildlife inhabiting Kahuzi-Biega since my childhood. From elephants to baboons, through to chimpanzees and gorillas, all these animals were feeding on our farms around the park and other surrounding farms. Only baboons are still found to raid crops on farms around Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and gorillas and bush pigs around Itombwe Nature Reserve. This region is the sole area, worldwide, which the eastern lowland gorilla inhabits. If they become extinct here, they will be gone forever!
Once in life, this region provided financial incentives to local peoples in the form of gorilla tourism at Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Both the park and surrounding communities benefitted from the tourism industry. All these aspects are still fresh in my memory! As I grew up and was educated, I learnt and understood how these programs should be well managed to reduce any negative impact on the forest and the local cultures and traditions. I grew up together with this region’s conservation programs… the park was created in 1970 and I was born there in 1972. And since 1992, I started working on this park’s conservation programs, until now. I have combined my studies with my conservation work, since then.
For years, the eastern DRC has been rocked by civil unrest and armed conflict, leading to people exploiting natural resources in order to survive. How do Strong Roots help these people to make a change and start living harmoniously with the natural world?
Coltan for eastern lowland gorillas in DRC is what palm oil has been for orangutans in Indonesia. Extractive industries have their sociology, totally different from conservation bodies. For the first one, natural resources, including humans, can be destroyed to make money… whereas for the second, money is useless when its sourcing origin affects species and human rights. There is no conservation without respecting human rights. Any conservation action which does not care about human rights is another form of extractive industry. Any conservation program which does not focus on local peoples’ wellbeing is working for species decline. Otherwise, for whom would this conservation be conserving? This has been the trend of most existing conservation programs.
Globally, the rate of deforestation and species decline is alarming. I concur in some ways that population growth rate which brings in increased demand for natural resources and for new settlement lands might be a driver, but I also strongly believe that conservation models should be reviewed; along with the way of looking at local peoples in conservation. How can we prevent a local community member from hunting an antelope for subsistence, but allow hunting games on elephants for sports and fun? Why do we call one “poaching” and the other “hunting”? Who does “poaching” and who does “hunting”, while one kills a non-protected animal for subsistence and the other kills a protected animal for fun?
Although this situation is not yet exactly the same where Strong Roots is conducting conservation programs in eastern DRC, most of the effects of political unrest on natural resources were not only conducted by local peoples. Most of this was conducted by armed troops, supervising mineral exploitation inside protected areas, directly killing gorillas and trading wildlife and trophies, and committing exaction on local community members.
As for the exploitation of natural resources by local peoples in order to survive, Strong Roots works with community members to create alternative resources that they can source in the forest for food. These are the main reasons for developing sustainable ways to secure food through farming and animal husbandry programs, as detailed above.