People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) cut down trees "not because they want to destroy the forest, but because there is a lack of energy" and jobs, and they need the wood to make charcoal to use for themselves and to sell for income, explained Dario Merlo of the Jane Goodall Institute's Community-Centered Conservation program in the DRC (DRC-CCC). Merlo was joined by Janet Edmond of Conservation International (CI) and Sam Weru of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Eastern African Marine Ecoregion Programme at the October 23, 2008, event "Field Trips: Population-Health-Environment Projects in Kenya, DRC, and Madagascar," the sixth meeting in the "PHE: Building the Foundation for the Next 10 Years" series sponsored by the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program.
Improving Health, Conservation, Livelihoods in an Insecure Region
According to Merlo, charcoal production, illegal mining, poaching, and ongoing conflict have converged to create a punishing environment for conservationists in Landscape 10, a 50,000-square kilometer region in eastern DRC that is home to 90 percent of all eastern lowland gorillas, 80 percent of the country's intact forest, and the largest headwaters in the Congo basin. Nevertheless, the DRC-CCC program has successfully promoted environmentally sustainable economic development; stronger local governance; and access to health care, including family planning.
For instance, a micro-hydroelectric power plant in Kasugho village—backed by the DRC-CCC and built and maintained by local residents—has increased energy security, generated sustainable jobs, and reduced pressure on the surrounding forest. To support alternative livelihoods, the DRC-CCC program has also invested in agriculture and livestock and purchased equipment for the 300 community eco-guards and park rangers who patrol approximately 40 percent of the surrounding forest. In addition, the program has provided training for health care workers and has refurbished formerly defunct clinics.
The DRC-CCC program uses radio to reach rural audiences with its conservation and family planning messages. "These people in remote places," said Merlo, "when they are working they listen to radio, walking, everything they do, they listen to radio…it helps us to spread the conservation messages, but also the family planning aspect."
Healthy Communities Lead to Healthy Environments
"People on the forefront [of conservation] need to be healthy…in order to be able to accomplish conservation," argued Edmond. "Our main objectives are to reduce population pressure on natural resources and the environment," she said. "We do that by providing access to family planning, reproductive health services," as well as other basic health services often lacking in rural communities. CI has partnered with local health and development NGOs to bring these services to rural communities in areas of high biodiversity in Cambodia, the Philippines, and Madagascar. Meanwhile, CI has achieved its conservation targets by promoting sustainable livelihoods like agroforestry and improved rice production, as well as by rehabilitating habitats by planting trees. "We really built the capacity in the community—in the people—to be, basically, our agents of change. They're the ones who are integrated. Now they know how to do the family planning, the health, the conservation," said Edmond.
A Dose of a Vaccine, a Dose of Conservation
"Although we protect marine turtles on our side of the border, they are butchered across the border" in Somalia, explained Weru—one of the many challenges stymieing conservation efforts in the Kiunga Marine National Reserve on the northeastern coast of Kenya. Other threats include the growing global demand for fish, unsustainable mangrove harvesting, use of illegal fishing nets, and oil and gas exploration.
In Kenya, WWF has combined its conservation programs with efforts to meet local needs in order to generate goodwill and build healthier communities that are better prepared to manage their natural resources. By initiating mobile health clinics, WWF has vaccinated children and expectant mothers, while at the same time spreading the message of conservation. "You'd get a dose of your vaccine, and then you also get a dose of the science of conservation," Weru quipped.
WWF implemented a fishing-gear exchange program to reduce the incidence of illegal gear; improve fishermen's income by using legal, larger mesh nets that catch bigger fish; and bolster the health of the environment. WWF has also supported beach cleanup by creating programs where local residents turn flotsam like flip-flops into art—in some instances increasing household income by US $130 per month.
"By and large, the conservation world is practiced by biologists, and therefore we may not know how to deal with changing peoples' behaviors and attitudes," Weru said. To be truly effective in implementing a PHE program, "you need skills beyond the biological, the ecological skills—you need social skills."
Drafted by Will Rogers and edited by Rachel Weisshaar.