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Setting the stage: theater troupe revives tradition to promote conservation in DRC

Art-form helping establish new park by acting as communication bridge between conservationists, local people

Two years ago, environmental artist Roger Peet set off to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to support the new Lomami National Park with bandanas that he designed. This time, Peet is back in Congo to carry out a conservation theater project in remote villages near the proposed Lomami National Park.



Terese and John Hart, scientists from the U.S., have worked to establish Lomami National Park in the region between three rivers, the Tshuapa, the Lomami, and the Lualaba (collectively referred to as “TL2”) after early expeditions revealed a vibrant, thriving forest under threat from commercial exploitation of animals. They have worked with their team of Congolese researchers and fieldworkers for eight years.


Locals have mixed feelings about Lomami National Park, according to Peet. While there is excitement about new benefits from the park, there is also concern about loss of access to forest resources so vital in this war-torn and impoverished region. In addition, hunting for bushmeat is a major issue, as local meat markets are sources of income for many.




Roger Peet and his theater colleagues. Photo courtesy of Roger Peet.



The Lomami region is home to a new monkey species called the lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) that was just discovered in 2007. In addition, the area is also occupied by okapis (Okapia johnstoni) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), both of which are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, and forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and Congo peacocks (Afropavo congensis), which are listed as Vulnerable.



“The Lomami region is a place where important conservation work needs to be done,” Peet said. “The park project has the potential to be a great example of a more sensitive way of developing protected areas.”



But why theater? Peet and colleagues came up with the idea as a way to communicate critical themes to people who live near the park, who rely on the forest for much of their daily living, and who stand to be affected by changes that the park will bring about.



“What we decided that we would focus on was firstly community control of forests and who gets to hunt in them, and secondly reasons why a protected park area is a good idea,” Peet said. “I then wrote, in French, two short dramas addressing those themes, and TL2 worker Leon Salumu translated them into Swahili. Leon found two brilliant young actors, Salva Bapena and Leroi Kishishi at the Kindu radio station who agreed to perform the skits, and we recruited ICCN secretary Omba Florence to do data collection and interviewing. Senior TL2 researcher Maurice Emetshu and I did the logistical organizing and administration.”



In a July 2014 interview with mongabay.com, Peet discussed the goals of this project, the power of theater for conservation, and future plans to promote Lomami National Park.



INTERVIEW WITH ROGER PEET: CONSERVATION THEATER IN THE CONGO



Mongabay: Why did you decide to do a skit, out of all mediums? How did the audience react?



Roger Peet: Theater is, above all, cheap. It requires little to no specialized technology. As long as we kept ourselves fed and sheltered and safe, there was nothing to break down (except for our bicycles- but that’s another story entirely). Theater is rooted in story-telling, which seems to me to be a central and critical part of Congolese daily life and culture. Theater is intimate and fluid, and performances can be tweaked for different circumstances in a way that a film, for example, can’t.



There’s a tradition of using traveling theater as a medium for communication of news and information, especially in the aftermath of the Great War in Congo, during which so much communications and transportation infrastructure was destroyed and so much of the country rendered isolated due to the inability to communicate.





A player acts during a skit. Photo courtesy of Roger Peet.

The audiences generally seemed to really enjoy our presentation! All of the villages where we performed are quite isolated and remote, and the arrival of such a novel group such as ourselves was occasion for a lot of curious interest. We used masks for one of the skits, in which a leopard and a monkey are conversing about how they feel about this new park they’ve been hearing about, and many people, especially young people, really seemed to be enthralled by them.



It’s an interesting situation, as Congo has a great and powerful tradition of mask-making and performance that has been sadly diminished in recent decades as a result of changes in religious affiliation. Salva and Leroi are comic geniuses, utter masters of slapstick and physical comedy, and they made the tolerable jokes I wrote into hilarious riffs on rural living that really resonated with people in the villages. Humor is an excellent way to communicate serious subjects, and our actors used it to great effect.



Mongabay: Do you plan to continue performing the skits (in other villages, write new scripts, etc.?) What other plans do you have in mind for the future?



Roger Peet: Currently there is a plan to take the skits to other villages near the park, along one of the other roads that runs out of Kindu to the north, and along which a lot of bushmeat and poaching traffic occurs. This should potentially be happening within the month, and I’m looking forward eagerly to hear how it goes. I won’t be along this time, but that’s part of the power of the project — it’s very simple, and doesn’t require a lot of administration, and can be easily repeated in a lot of different contexts. I’m dreaming of a collaboration with a Congolese performer named Faustin Linyekula, where we take a more developed mask-theater production to some of these locations, and also to cities in Congo, where the message of conservation is also very important.




The skits incorporate masks representing species found in the local forests. Photo courtesy of Roger Peet.




Mongabay: What do locals think of Lomami National Park?



Roger Peet: People in general have mixed feelings about the park, to be honest. There is a lot of enthusiasm for the resources that the project brings to the region, and for the potential for economic activity and a generally better state of forest health, but there is also a lot of worry, and a lot of anger, about the loss of access to forest resources that the park implies.



There is a lot of money being made from the commercial meat market that is emptying the forest out, and even more money being made from the illegal trade in protected animal products, something that sustains the dangerous and violent criminal organizations that plague the region and are taking great steps to disrupt the park project. There have been a lot of deaths and a lot of other violence and disruption perpetrated by these groups, which pose a real and ongoing threat not just to the park efforts but also to people’s general safety and livelihoods.



People see that the park effort has the resources to oppose these groups, but they fear getting on the wrong side of the conflict. There’s been a general willingness to comply in good faith with the requests that the park project has made, such as to turn more intensively to farming as opposed to hunting as a means of getting a living, but the lack of infrastructure makes evacuation of farm products difficult to sustain, because they bring a much lower price per pound than meat. Everywhere we went, people entreated us to help them with better roads, better bridges, so that they could do a better job of getting their farm products to market and continue to turn away from hunting.




The troupe travels to villages around where Lomami National Park may someday exist. Photo courtesy of Roger Peet.




Mongabay: What effects have you seen in terms of conservation?



Roger Peet: There’s still an awful lot of animals being taken out of the forest. At one stop on our bicycle tour we met a man who, while enjoying a day off from his work constructing a medical center, had taken it upon himself to count the number of motorcycles loaded with meat that passed him. He counted something like 80 full loads over an eight-hour period. That’s an eminently unsustainable level of hunting.



Maurice explained to me that a lot of the hunting is being done by organized groups of people camping out in the forest and setting huge numbers of snares, while hunting with shotguns and flashlights day and night. During our skit about community control of forests, we could hear people exclaiming that yes, they did need more control over who hunted in their forests, and that commercial hunters were impoverishing them. However, they also lack resources for enforcement, and when city people come to the village and offer people the loan of a shotgun for a week in exchange for a bike-load of meat, it’s hard to turn down.



A lot of the people who are at the sharp edge of this struggle to conserve what remains of the forest fauna are living in difficult and often hungry situations, and need more support. That said, many people understand viscerally that the current state of affairs is not sustainable in the long term. Older people are keenly aware of how the forest and savannah have changed, as elephants and other large mammals have totally vanished over the past thirty years, and everyone knows that many other species are becoming ever more vanishingly scarce. There seems to be a sense that something must be done, and many people see the park effort as a way to address a situation that is otherwise out of control.





A butterfly of the Nymphalidae family found in the Lomami region. Photo courtesy of Roger Peet.

Mongabay: What are the challenges for promoting and establishing Lomami National Park?



Roger Peet: Getting a handle on the criminal gangs has to be a top priority. The key warlord in this region, a brutal maniac by the name of Colonel Thoms, has set himself up as a defender of traditional ways in his opposition to the park. He routinely threatens to slaughter park workers and anyone who associates with them, and his agents have been responsible for the burning of several TL2 outposts and villages near the park, the murder of TL2 agents and the brutalization of numerous park workers during recent months.



Thoms himself is a convicted serial rapist and murderer who escaped from a life sentence in Kisangani’s prison several years ago. Any real progress can only occur after he has been somehow neutralized. The national army has realized that Thoms poses a threat that is greater than mere banditry at this point, but unfortunately there is deep and troubling corruption within its ranks that raises questions about its real motivations and its efficacy in routing him out.



If Thoms can be dealt with, there are still many hurdles to overcome, but the TL2 workers are extraordinarily passionate about their work, and are consummate persuaders, promoters of conservation, and really good at making friends. If anyone can make this park mean something beautiful, it’s them. I was consistently amazed by their skill and confidence in their work, and their dedication to their communities, their families, and to the forest and the land that sustains them.




The Machach river, between the villages of Kakungu and Makoka, splits into nine branches, crossed by nine bridges like this one. Photo by Roger Peet.










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