A partnership between local villages and conservation groups, headed up by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), has led to the creation of a new 1,847 square mile (4,875 square kilometer) reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The reserve will save some of the region’s last pristine forests: ensuring the survival of the embattled bonobo—the least-known of the world’s four great ape species—and protecting a wide variety of biodiversity from the Congo peacock to the dwarf crocodile. However, the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve is worth attention for another reason: every step of its creation—from biological surveys to reserve management—has been run by the local Congolese NGO and villages of Kokolopori.
I. ‘To me the first thing, it’s very simple, you give the local people the control’.
Lounging bonobo in Kokolopori reserve. Photo by: Jeffry Oonk.
The establishment of nature reserves often leads to conflict with local people, sometimes lasting generations. Traditionally governments and conservation organizations delineate park boundaries so that they avoid all human populations, or in some cases even remove people from the parks. Local people—who may have enjoyed traditional rights in the parks for centuries—are suddenly told they can no longer hunt, fish, or collect resources in the park. Programs are often established to aid local people or repay them for their losses, but many of these prove less-than-adequate.
The situation in Kokolopori could not be more different. In partnership with BCI, locals have been involved in every decision regarding the new reserve. BCI, a ground-breaking conservation group, was also responsible for the establishment of Sankuru Reserve in the DRC. Larger than Massachusetts, Sankuru Nature Reserve made headlines in 2007 for its importance to conservation and its focus, like Kokolopori, on working with local communities. However Kokolopori has taken local community involvement to a new level.
“To me the first thing, it’s very simple, you give the local people the control,” Michael Hurley, executive director and vice president of BCI, told Mongabay.com. “Give them the education and teach them modern conservation science to facilitate their doing it, but also give them the resources so they can take control, and that’s often the step that’s missed. I’ve heard it said so often, ‘well, we want to work with that group there, but they really don’t have the capacity to do the kinds of things we need to do’. And my response is, ‘well, there’s the problem, focus on building their capacity as opposed to just imposing conservation programs’.”
One way in which BCI builds capacity is by crafting close partnerships with local NGOs, in this case Vie Sauvage.
Women dancing in Kokolopori village. Photo courtesy of BCI.
“It is important to emphasize up front that BCI could not have accomplished this without the leadership of Albert Lokasola, a visionary leader, and President of Vie Sauvage, a locally based NGO,” says Hurley, “ An important aspect of BCI’s approach is to support, nurture, and facilitate local leaders, and commit to long-term partnerships.”
The people of Kokolopori have long known what it is like to be ignored by the outside world. Suffering through the decade-long Congo war, they have never known steady access to health care or education. In addition, the war disrupted their ability to sell agricultural crops—a livelihood they had depended on. It was in the midst of this situation that the people of Kokolopori decided to protect their forests as a reserve rather than exploit them for profit. Albert Lokasola, President of Vie Sauvage, approached BCI in 2001 seeking support with local conservation efforts. The Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve became not only welcome news for conservation efforts but humanitarian ones as well, since innovative programs have given the people of Kokolopori the chance of a better life.
During preliminary studies in the region it become increasingly clear that a nature reserve which did not directly benefit local people would not be viable or desirable to any party involved. So, BCI began to create its own version of forest reserves that incorporated local human communities. BCI sought partnerships not only with the local communities, but also with local NGOs, Vie Sauvage. During every step in the reserve’s creation BCI turned more-and-more to the strength and dedication of the Congolese.
“The most important thing is [the Congolese] need to understand that they are the ones who have control. And that can only be done by building up relationships over the years and by constant proofs to the partners that you really are giving them control. And when that’s done, a foundation is built for real sustainability,” Hurley says.
II. ‘People who live in the forest know the forest better’.
From the very beginning, BCI solidified their relationship with locals. The first thing an organization must do before proposing a protected area is to survey the region’s biodiversity.
Kokolopori Reserve lies south of the Congo River in DRC’s Cuvette Centrale, a region of lowland tropical forest and wetlands. The reserve was known to have bonobos, but the actual number remained a mystery. In addition other species in the reserve needed to be identified. But unlike most biological surveys, which are often conducted by foreign scientists, this survey was undertaken largely by the local Congolese.
The forest of Kokolopori. Photo courtesy of BCI.
“What we believe is that people who live in the forest know the forest better,” Hurley says. “If I were going to go to Montana to photograph elk, I’d hire a local guide. So, [the Congolese] generally can collect a lot more data, they really observe the forest and know it more, and if you combine that with the science and technical skills—which we provide the training for—then we get a lot more information.”
Through training programs, BCI educated locals in GPS, surveying technology, and line transects. The training remained useful even after the initial surveys were finished.
“Once [the locals] started working on surveys with us then we tried to keep funding them, so in a sense it’s their equipment, they’re doing the work, and they’re being paid for it. That money is being dispersed through the community as well,” Hurley says. “They continue to act as ambassadors for conservation, and then we…convert many of the survey team members into monitors.”
Once a bonobo site is discovered, monitors are assigned to the area to protect the bonobos from hunters. Currently there are 70 local monitors overseeing a number of bonobo sites.
III. ‘How do you tell these local people who are poor and starving they should not hunt A –B –and -C?’
To work with the local people effectively, BCI developed the Information Exchange program, which facilitates a dialogue between the local people and conservationists. The Information Exchange program has been vital for identifying the true needs of Congolese in the region. As an example of the importance of Information Exchange, Hurley points to a water well that was almost built.
“One of our folks was in the village and the women were carrying water…it was about 3 ½ hours of work starting at sunrise: trekking down to a river area, collecting water, and bringing back all these heavy, heavy containers of water on their head to the village. The idea was…we should look at getting investment to build a well in the village. Now traditionally, what might be done is a socio-economic study: take a look around, look at what the needs are, and then develop a project and go in and build that well. But in this process what we found was the women said…‘oh, wait a minute that’s the only time we all get together away from the village and get to talk about our husbands’—and they bring their kids and the kids play in the water and everyone washes and the women share stories…it’s their time away, and they said ‘you know that really would not be good for us’. It’s that kind of sharing, that kind of knowledge asopposed to imposing things that we think are best for them.”
Yetee elder in Kokolopori. Photo courtesy of BCI.
Hurley believes the Information Exchange program could help conservationists around the world to learn how to really communicate with local peoples about their needs. According to Hurley, many conservationists “go in and do biodiversity studies and then do socio-economic studies and then they talk about stakeholder engagements, but what it usually ends up being is they hold some meetings and tell local people what they are going to do. Information exchange is about going in and working with local people first in a language they understand, sharing with them, and, most importantly, building upon their own systems of knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and practices,” Hurley explains.
Once trust is established between locals and the environmental organization through communication programs like the Information Exchange then much of the work that would traditionally be done by conservationists is taken on by locals.
“Someone asked Sally [Jewell Coxe, co-founder and president of BCI] awhile ago, ‘how do you tell these local people who are poor and starving that they should not hunt A-B-and-C’. And her answer was ‘well, we don’t, their peers and their Congolese do’. That’s it. We build the local leadership and they are the ones that then do this, not us,” Hurley explains.
IV. ‘You can’t ignore health care and education; those are not just extraneous things.’
One of the most important aspects of working with the people of Kokolopori has been efforts to provide better infrastructure, along with education and health-care in a region that had known neither.
BCI has sought to improve infrastructure in Kokolopori by providing an atmosphere of cooperative use of resources between locals and visiting conservationists, essentially instilling the philosophy of ‘we are all in this together’. The reserve’s conservation centers are open for the local people to use, providing the region with its first easy access to communicating with the outside world.
“Even though the conservation centers are primarily to support the work of BCI and Vie Sauvage, they’re for the local people, who use them. So unlike parks where you have park headquarters but the people have to knock on the door and ask permission, these are really sites that are of and for the people,” Hurley explains.
According to BCI’s strategic plan the access to radio and satellite phone has transformed the region: “Before BCI installed an HF radio at Kokolopori and provided a satellite phone to Vie Sauvage, the only means of long-distance communication was talking drums.”
Young girls of Kokolopori. Photo courtesy of BCI.
Providing better access to education, including higher education, has also been a vital component of BCI’s work in Kokolopori.
“We have supported local schools with material and supplies and roofing,” says Hurley. “As well we have the ISDR-Djolu, the Djolu Institut Superieur de Developpement Rurale, which provides higher level training and education.”
The creation of ISDR was led by Albert Lokasola. The technical college includes coursework in conservation, sustainable agriculture, community development, math, and rural administration.
BCI and its partners have also built the first clinic in the area, called the Bonobo Health Clinic, which includes an on-staff doctor and nurses. The clinic is supported by the Indigo Foundation in Australia and by the Kokolopori-Falls Church Sister City partnership, the first sister cities between the USA and the DRC. The clinic has conducted nutritional studies in the region, which have revealed a protein deficiency in some of the population, a problem that the medical team is striving to correct.
The Bonobo Clinic. Photo courtesy of BCI.
“It has to be a totally holistic approach that addresses things like health care and education, because you can give [local people] a little bit of livelihood support and help them protect their forest, but if their kids are dying of malaria or don’t have medicines, it’s not going to work. They need to have a base,” Hurley says. “You can’t ignore health care and education; those are not just extraneous things.”
V. ‘They are the ones who are controlling this and that generates a huge amount of social capital.’
When BCI entered the region in 2001, they found the villages of Kokolopori devastated by DRC’s long war. All access to markets for agricultural products had been cut, severing the villages’ economy. No products had been going in or out for years. This also led to an up-tick in bushmeat hunting by local peoples for subsistence. BCI and its partners created projects to work with locals to re-invigorate their sustainable agricultural systems and provide access to markets.
New disease-resistant cassava. Photo courtesy of BCI.
One successful program involved working with the region’s staple crop, cassava. When crops were devastated by mosaic disease, which destroyed up to 80 percent of yields, a partnership between BCI, Vie Sauvage, the South-East Consortium for International Development, and the local agricultural cooperative, CAPEC, introduced a new mosaic-disease resistant cassava variety.
As Hurley describes, the new cassava cuttings have been important both for the local people and the forest: “In Kokolopori as in other areas [locals] are cutting into secondary and sometimes primary forests to expand agricultural fields, but they are able to now reduce that agricultural expansion and get higher productivity on smaller plots [with the new cassava cuttings], and then expand the multiplication fields and the other fields which are the people’s. The local people can then also sell the cassava cuttings to other communities and make revenues from that…We are starting to introduce other seed stocks and other crops as well in a planned, carefully phased program that reduces the impact on the forest.”
Other programs have focused on aiding the villages’ women. Through micro-credit programs, BCI and its partners have provided local women with non-electric sewing machines and training. Women are currently selling making and selling dresses locally, while BCI hopes to expand the program internationally. As well, women have been trained in soap-making and salting fish. These micro-credit programs are meant to provide families with additional income and security.
Women telling stories in Kokolopori village. Photo courtesy of BCI.
Hurley believes that BCI shows just how much a conservation organization can accomplish, so far, without long lists of wealthy donors by spending wisely and forging important partnerships. Part of the secret is to make certain that communities are aware of where the money is going.
“What’s amazing…is that if the people know we don’t have a huge amount of funding, so even if it’s a little bit of money they know that it goes to them…and they also know…they will have control of it,” Hurley says. “So while they’re hoping for greater funding in the future for many of these programs, even with a small amount of funding it helps motivate and engage the people to be engaged in conservation. But it’s not just the funding, it’s local people’s understanding that they are the ones who are controlling this and that generates a huge amount of social capital.”
VI. ‘It’s outsiders who come in and do commercial bushmeat hunting’.
Wildlife in the DRC currently faces two major threats: habitat loss and hunting. Deforestation for agriculture and logging, including rampant illegal logging, has devastated habitat for many species in the DRC. However, hunting is also a large concern. Congo’s forest elephants have been decimated in recent decades by ivory poachers. Hunting for meat is also on the rise all over central Africa. This practice, known as bushmeat hunting, provides income and protein-rich foods in a part of the world that often lacks both.
While Kokolopori has seen some deforestation due to expanding village agriculture, so far the reserve has avoided attention from logging companies. This has allowed the area to remain relatively pristine compared to other areas in the DRC. But Kokolopori’s wildlife has not been so lucky: “bushmeat hunting is the major threat, and really its commercial bushmeat hunting,” Hurley says.
Hurley adds that although local people hunt, they are largely agriculturists by nature. This fact is something the Congolese have expressed to Vie Sauvage and BCI throughout their meetings in the Information Exchange program.
Kokolopori trackers. Photo courtesy of BCI.
“It’s logical,” Hurley explains. “While there are spiritual and cultural aspects to some traditional subsistence hunting practices, many locals would much rather get up in the morning and step outside their back door and work in an agricultural field and have improved livestock management, pigs, goats, and chickens. They’d rather have all that outside their back door than spend three or four days in the forest hunting something.”
With increased education and awareness, including the re-establishment of outside markets for their agricultural products and enforcement of hunting regulations, bushmeat hunting by locals will largely become a non-issue. Commercial bushmeat hunting, however, remains a large threat facing the wildlife of Kokolopori.
“In many parts of the Congo and in some parts of Kokolopori it’s outsiders who come in and do commercial bushmeat hunting, they come in and set up camps, they hunt out a forest, and then they smoke the meat, and they transport it, they leave on the river and sell it. And it’s not their forest,” says Hurley.
BCI has increasingly discovered that the key to dealing with bushmeat hunters is reinforcing control by the local authorities. In other words, make the local people, at least in part, responsible for catching and punishing those who invade their forest.
“There are many estimates on how many park guards you need per square kilometer in a certain area, but when you have an entire village, an entire traditional chieftainship, and a hierarchical structure that has certain belief systems and rights, when that whole village is …saying: ‘this is our forest, and we’ve agreed to it, we are agreeing to protect this land’, it’s an awful lot easier” to protect wildlife, according to Hurley. “You, in a sense, have thousands of people who are enforcing the law… [it’s] going to be a lot stronger and a lot more sustainable.”
Kokolopori will also have traditional eco-guards monitoring the reserve through the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), but, as Hurley says, “our work with the ICCN also recently has shown that they truly believe that this new model may be better.”
At the same time, rules and regulations are still being set up across the reserve. Rather than the usual dogma of no hunting—ever—BCI is working on creating a model that incorporates zoning and traditional practices to allow for some sustainable hunting by the local people. However flagship and endangered species, such as bonobos, will remain under protection in all zones.
“What we’ve learned in other protected areas, is that many local people use protected areas as their hunting zones…because they are frustrated by the fact that they have been thrown out,” explains Hurley. “So, we have to have a gradual transition process where certain sustainable hunting practices are allowed. The local people have traditional systems that have maintained sustainability in hunting, such as seasonality or rotating seasons, having certain areas of sacred forests or designated areas where no hunting is allowed. These ancient traditional systems tend to allow wildlife populations to be replenished. But there is still a lot of work to be done in Kokolopori, as there is even in all the old establish protected areas, to really figure out a good system.”
BCI, its partners, and the local people are still working out the different zoning areas for the reserve, but the zones will be modeled on how the locals use different regions and not determined by non-Congolese.
VII. ‘There is no place else like this in the bonobo habitat’
A major goal of Kokolopori reserve is to protect one of the world’s largest remaining populations of bonobos, with well over a thousand thought to inhabit the reserve.
Bonobo. Photo by: Jeffry Oonk.
Categorized as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, bonobos are threatened by both habitat loss and bushmeat hunting. Total population estimates vary widely, from 5,000 to 50,000, but the records of bonobo habitat loss are not so variable. It is estimated that the bonobo has only 24 percent of its habitat remaining. While a United Nations study predicted that bonobo habitat would shrink to 4 percent in twenty years, the lowest for any great ape.
Bonobos have become famous for their largely peaceful, egalitarian society, which contrasts starkly with the, at times, warlike nature of chimpanzees. While chimpanzee society is patriarchal and competitive, females actually hold the highest roles in bonobos society, with the top males chosen according to their mothers.
Bonobos are also known for their bi-sexuality and, in turn, their employment of sex as more than just a procreative act. Sex among the bonobos can be used to relieve stress, establish bonds, and let off steam. Having spent decades in the shadow of their closest relative, the chimpanzee, the bonobos are finally getting the attention they deserve. And Kokolopori is arguably the world’s best place to study or see bonobos.
“We’ve had visitors there. And according to ICCN they’ve never seen anything like this in bonobo habitat. Literally within hours of arriving visitors are looking at bonobos. There is no place else like this in the bonobo habitat,” Hurley says. “We have often heard of visitors to other protected areas in the bonobo habitat where it may take many days or be almost impossible to see bonobos. This is not the case in Kokolopori.”
Hurley adds that although Kokolopori “is very rough, very rough, it is where you can see bonobos.” He attributes this to the fact that Kokolopori, unlike other reserves, has had salaried locals monitoring bonobos groups since 2003. Kokolopori is currently working on setting-up limited eco-tourism.
Aside from bonobos, Kokolopori possesses a wealth of biodiversity. Unlike many forest regions in the DRC, Kokolopori has been relatively undisturbed, leaving healthy thriving ecosystems.
Eleven primate species, not including bonobos, have been identified in the reserve. This includes the Salongo monkey Cercopithecus dryas, which has been discovered in the wild for the first time in Kokolopori. Prior to its discovery in the reserve, the species was only known from markets. In fact, its name, Salongo, means ‘market-day’ in the local language, Lingala. Thollon’s red colobus Procolobus tholloni also inhabits the reserves; this species is so little known that the IUCN has yet to determine its status.
The endangered dwarf crocodile. Photo courtesy of BCI.
The park also includes the African golden cat Profelis aurata, the sitatunga Tragelaphus spekii, the Congo forest buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus, the bongo Tragelaphus eurycerus eurycerus, the leopard Panthera pardus, and the endangered dwarf crocodile Osteolaemus tetraspis.
Thirteen species of endangered birds have been recorded at Kokolopori, including the gray parrot Psittacus erithacus, which is highly threatened by the pet trade. The reserve also include five near-endemic birds: the Congo peacock Afropavo Congensis listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, the yellow-legged malimbe Malimbus flavipes, the Congo sunbird Nectarinia Congensis , and two martins: the African river martin Pseudochelidon eurystomina and the Congo martinRiparia Ongica.
Forest elephants Loxodonta cyclotis have also been recorded in the reserve, but they “appear to be transient”, says Hurley, who explains that they apparently use Kokolopori as a migration route.
VII. ‘You can’t solve the problem by using the same mindset that created the problem’.
The philosophy of local community engagement and involvement is not only effective according to Hurley but its also relatively inexpensive: “What we have discovered, with so many other folks working in the Congo basin, is some of the big entities say, ‘you know our biggest problem is getting the local communities to work on our programs, to be engaged in our programs’—that’s their biggest problem. You know, we seem to have the solution. We don’t have all the answers, I won’t say that. But we have the solution to part of that problem, we found that we have ways of motivating and engaging local communities, and ironically it’s without much money at all.”
Detail of bonobo. Photo by: Jeffry Oonk.
Hurley believes that BCI’s philosophy should not constrained by geographic region, but could be useful in many parts of the world in solving the difficulties that have arisen between protecting nature and respecting the people who live there.
“We have really developed a methodology could be replicated in other parts of the world. In some cases, people talk about it, but they don’t really do it. There’s an Einstein quote that says something like: ‘you can’t solve the problem by using the same mindset that created the problem’. And all too often one goes in with a western mindset geared to developing and designing programs that we simply impose,” Hurley says.
One of the keys to BCI’s work—and one of its most surprising aspects—has been its capacity to spread without any additional effort from BCI.
“We provided a training program in Kokolopori, a couple years ago, where we had NGOs and community association members from many different organizations from outside Kokolopori,” Hurley says, gearing up for a good story. “Now one participant took the training and…he went right back to another region far to the west where he worked under a BCI subcontract as part of an Information Exchange team. We learned later that he was so inspired that he went back to his community and utilized his earnings to register an NGO with regional authorities…to protect bonobos and to set the area aside for conservation, and this was without any investment from BCI. That is, it is self-replicating,” Hurley explains. “The local communities are emulating this model, so our projects are self-replicating…and we are promoting systems where they share communications, where the people we’ve trained are training other people.”
One wonders why that same self-replicating process that has occurred on the ground in the jungles of the Congo, could not also occur globally, from the Amazon to Borneo, bringing locals villagers and conservationists together in a common purpose: for a better life and a better world.
The Bonobo Conservation Initiative:www.bonobo.org
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