A HEART OF GOLD IN THE HEART OF DARKNESS
by Lorna Howarth
Photo: Andy Rouse/naturepl.com
Caring for people and wildlife in the midst of conflict
What little news comes out of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) tends to be very negative, creating a distorted view of the country and its people and environment. Such negative reporting overlooks the inspiring work that is being done by people on the ground. One such example is found in Bukavu, Eastern Congo, where the Pole Pole Foundation (POPOF) is based.
POPOF works on the long-term conservation of the nearby Kahuzi-Biéga National Park (KBNP) – home to one of the last groups of Eastern Lowland Gorillas – and the sustainable development of the surrounding local communities.
POPOF was started in 1992 by John Kahekwa, resident of Bukavu and chief gorilla tracker in KBNP. He had been given a $10 tip from a client, which he used to buy 10 T-shirts to sell to tourists. The T-shirts proved popular, so John bought more, and over time he managed to create a successful small business. Rather than spend the profits on himself, he decided to set up a foundation to engage the local communities in protecting the gorillas and the park.
He had seen how the ecological damage being done by communities was due to the poverty they faced and a lack of education about the value of the park and gorillas, not through malicious intent: as he continually used to hear, “Empty stomach got no ears.” Rather than seeing people such as poachers as criminals, he saw them as victims of poverty, so he sought to engage rather than criminalise them.
From the very start, the ethos and philosophy of the foundation was articulated in its name and logo. Pole Pole means ‘slowly’ in Kiswahili. The foundation aims to use small amounts of funding to start up projects, which slowly expand and bring long-term benefits to the park and the surrounding communities. To do this, it has built and runs a primary and a secondary school, which teach the new generation to better appreciate their surrounding environment and manage their natural resources in harmony with community development, to avoid conflict with the park. It also engages adults, especially ex-poachers and widows of men who have died protecting the park, in livelihood projects such as woodcarving, livestock programmes and clothes manufacturing.
The woodcarving links into a tree-planting programme, which runs tree nurseries that have given over 1.5 million seedlings to communities and encourages them to plant trees around their homes and fields. These trees provide wood for the carvings and also for making charcoal, which is sold to support the families of those involved. Together, these projects have significantly reduced the human pressures on KBNP and helped secure the future of the gorillas living there.
The foundation has faced enormous difficulties, as conflict has gripped the region, endangering its staff and largely destroying the tourism industry, a considerable funding source for its work. In spite of these huge obstacles, POPOF has remained in Bukavu, even while other, larger organisations have pulled out, providing a hope-inspiring tale for many places in the world where conflict and poverty threaten delicate species and ecosystems.
With thanks to Richard Milburn for this article. www.polepolefoundation.org
John Kahekwa, courtesy Richard Milburn