The 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference runs from July 8th—July 12th in Des Moines, Iowa, hosted by the Blank Park Zoo. Ahead of the event, Mongabay.com is running a series of Q&As with presenters. For more interviews, please see our ZACC feed.
Locals investigating a biomass briquette. Photo courtesy of New Nature Foundation.
When Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern first arrived in Uganda’s Kibale National Park in 2000 to study monkeys, little did they know then that they would stay on to kick-start an innovative organization, The New Nature Foundation, connecting locals to the park through videos and visits. Nor did they know they would soon tackle the biggest threat to Kibale: deforestation for cooking fuel wood. Since 2006, the couple’s organization has implemented a hugely-successful program that provides biomass briquettes for environmentally-friendly fuel for locals, cutting down on the need for forest destruction.
“The old style of conservation—put a fence around it and keep people out—does not work everywhere. Kibale was only formally established as a national park in 1993. Some of the people we are currently working with (including one of our staff) were evicted form the park at this time,” Goldstone and Stern explained in a recent interview with mongabay.com. “Historically, people in the area took what they needed from the forest, and it was sustainable. The extreme population growth has made things unsustainable, but people still have few alternatives to the traditional way of doing things. By offering people the chance to better themselves and their lot in life (through their own personal involvement and investment rather than through handouts), the people living around Kibale are making a better future for both themselves and wildlife.”
Biomass briquettes, which the group has dubbed eco-char, cook like charcoal but don’t depend on wood or coal for fuel. Funded by the Arcus Great Apes Fund, New Nature Foundation uses everything from peanut shells to livestock dung and potato peels to waste paper to create biomass that cooks effectively.
“Currently, our staff of 8 works full time producing briquettes and trading them to partner families for the raw materials. Thus, those who cannot afford to purchase fuel, those who would otherwise be collecting it within the protected area—are able to trade their farm waste for an improved biomass briquette,” Goldstone and Stern say.
These briquettes, combined with fuel-efficient stoves, puts considerably less pressure on nearby forests. The method also leads to positive social changes, according to the couple: young girls can attend school instead of spending all day collecting firewood, while people are less likely to bring back disease from close contact with wild animals.
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern will be presenting on their work at The New Nature Foundation at the 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference on Friday, July 12th in Des Moines, Iowa.
AN INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA GOLDSTONE AND MICHAEL STERN
Kibale National Park is home to chimpanzees among thousands of other species. Photo courtesy of New Nature Foundation.
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: We are high school sweethearts (now married for 7 years) who grew up in Philadelphia. We’ve both loved nature and wildlife our entire lives. Michael worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Zoo and New Jersey State Aquarium from an early age, and Becka also worked at the zoo and for the Sierra Club before traveling to Uganda for the first time as juniors in college in the year 2000. Michael’s college professor, Richard Wrangham, runs a research camp in Kibale National Park, so by chance that’s where we ended up on that first trip, and that’s where we’ve continued working ever since. The first trip out was to study the leaping habits of monkeys, and we’ve published this work (Red Colobus as Prey: The Leaping Habits of Five Sympatric Old World Monkeys Stern M. & Goldstone R. Folia Primatologica 2005;76:100–112). However, after this small taste of academic research, we realized we’d be much more useful as active conservationists.
Mongabay: What drew you to the people and wildlife of Kibale in Uganda?
Local woman shows off her biomass briquettes or eco-char. Photo courtesy of New Nature Foundation.
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: On that first trip we were amazed by the forest. At the intersection of Central and East Africa, all of our favorite animals can be found there: monkeys, apes, elephant, antelope, pigs, 350 bird species, 250 butterflies, etc. etc. etc. We enjoyed the research, but were struck by the disconnect between the park and the local citizens. The majority of people, we found, looked at the park as a place for foreigners to visit and had not been inside themselves for any reason other than to collect firewood. After graduating college in 2001, we partnered with five local primary schools to bring students on field trips into the park. Over the course of a year, we brought about 1,000 students on full day trips—90% of whom had never been in the park, though they lived just outside its boundaries. Kibale’s citizens are friendly, warm, loving people who are simply trying to get by much of the time. They didn’t appreciate the park simply because other things took priority in their every day lives. Through facilitating opportunities for them to connect with nature the way that we did as children (through museums, documentary films and field trips), more people have been able to see the beauty and value of the park for its own sake—not just as a source of raw materials. The Kibale Fuel Wood Project, an organic evolution from the earlier education work, began in 2006 with promoting and facilitating fuel efficient stoves, planting fast-growing native trees for firewood, and providing environmental education through museums, movies and educational competitions. A key aspect of the work (and one of the reasons we have faith in the Ugandan people and hope for the future of Ugandan wildlife) is that we require individual investment at every level. We do not give away trees or stoves—rather, our staff walk around villages and encourage people to plant and build, offering assistance where needed but making sure that the individuals are doing enough of the work themselves that they’ll be able to continue doing these things with no support in the future. By 2011 it became clear that, though these aspects were effective, we needed something else to empower people to find enough cooking fuel without destroying the national park—this was the birth of the eco-char initiative.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about eco-char?
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: The Kibale Eco-Char Initiative produces biomass fuel briquettes from agricultural waste and other recyclable materials. Our current recipes make use of banana, potato and yam peels, peanut shells, avocado pits, cow and goat dung, sawdust and waste paper. The finished product burns like a cross between firewood and charcoal—flaming at first, then remaining hot and cooking as a glowing embers. The idea for this project came from the Legacy Foundation, and we use their general methodology of producing and drying briquettes. Currently, our staff of 8 works full time producing briquettes and trading them to partner families for the raw materials. Thus, those who cannot afford to purchase fuel, those who would otherwise be collecting it within the protected area—are able to trade their farm waste for an improved biomass briquette. We’ve also partnered with the nearby tea estate to produce briquettes with their own staff using their industrial waste. They then provide these briquettes to their labor force. The typical family uses 30-40 briquettes per day.
Mongabay: How does this help the people of Kibale? How does this help the wildlife?
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: Reducing the struggle for firewood helps people and wildlife in many ways. Usually it falls on the young girls in the family to collect firewood. By reducing the amount needed, these girls are able to go to school instead of walking miles each day, often into the potentially dangerous habitat of wild animals. The stoves we promote have also been proven to be healthier for cooks, since they produce less smoke than a traditional 3 stone fire. They’re also less likely to burn children (a frightfully common occurrence with the traditional stoves). By reducing incursions of people into the protected areas, not only is habitat saved through reduction of deforestation, but disease transmission between people and wildlife is also reduced. By reducing the pressure on the forest fragments outside the park, the possibility exists for them to re-grow, adding to the habitat size for the numerous endangered and endemic species that call Kibale home, and acting as corridors for them to reach the nearby protected area of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The synergy of this project empowers communities to be the change the benefits both people and park.
Mongabay: Besides deforestation for firewood, what other threats do Kibale species face in region?
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: Small-scale deforestation for cooking fuel is the biggest threat, in our opinions. Charcoal production (for sale) is another big threat. People do still set snares in the park, intended for non-endangered pigs and duikers, but these do sometimes catch other animals too, of course. Climate change may turn out to be a big problem for the wildlife of Kibale, as well—there has already been an appreciable rise in average monthly high temps as well as a shift in the rainy seasons—sometimes there is no dry season (as in 2012), and sometimes there is drought. It remains to be seen what this will do to wildlife. As the population continues to grow, a shortage of arable land may mean that people begin intruding into the park for that reason, as well, though this is not a big problem yet.
Mongabay: How responsive have local people and groups been to the eco-char project?
Fuel-efficient stoves not only burn better but also lead to less children having burn injuries. Photo courtesy of New Nature Foundation.
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: We’ve seen a wonderful embrace of all components of the project, from tree planting to stove building to attending video shows to participating in competitions to trading for eco-char briquettes. 63.8% of our constituents now grow trees at home (up from 51.5% at inception). 53.2% now use efficient stoves (up from 4.5%). Project stoves are leading to a savings of 4,055 kg (8,921 lbs) of wood daily, or nearly 1.5 million kg (3.3 million lbs) per year, much of which would have been taken from Kibale. By the end of 2012, we had 71 families cooking with biomass briquettes, and we’ve just added more to this total in the past couple months. After 7 years of showing nature films every week in various locations, we still have audiences of almost 300 men, women and children at each. And the yearly competitions continue to draw huge (3-600) crowds to learn about conservation from their own peers. None of our programs would work without community involvement, so it’s a testament to the people of the region that they are interested in making conservation fit into their lifestyles.
Mongabay: Why is it so important to get local people on board for conservation success?
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: The old style of conservation—put a fence around it and keep people out—does not work everywhere. Kibale was only formally established as a national park in 1993. Some of the people we are currently working with (including one of our staff) were evicted form the park at this time. Historically, people in the area took what they needed from the forest, and it was sustainable. The extreme population growth has made things unsustainable, but people still have few alternatives to the traditional way of doing things. By offering people the chance to better themselves and their lot in life (through their own personal involvement and investment rather than through handouts), the people living around Kibale are making a better future for both themselves and wildlife. Without their involvement in finding alternative solutions, no matter how much time, money and effort is put into protecting a wild place, the overwhelming needs and desires of the population bordering a protected area will ultimately win out.
Mongabay: What can people do to help your eco-char project?
Rebecca Goldstone and Michael Stern: We’re always happy to receive donations! The New Nature Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit, so all donations are tax deductible. This year’s budget is ~$100,000, mostly raised through small grants from zoos, foundations and generous individuals. We also have a wishlist on Amazon, and love receiving other donations of books or art supplies for the science centers. Also, we do accept volunteers to help with any aspect of the work in Uganda. People traveling on safari in the area can also stop by and see what we’re doing first hand.
Boy carrying wood. Photo courtesy of New Nature Foundation.
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