Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sound the Alarum

I am a whistle blower.

It's a dangerous occupation here in Congo, where lots of the people who are corrupt are able to be so because of connections with higher-ups, but failing to circulate the reports of bad behavior is akin to condoning it in my mind.

Dian Fossey was a whistle-blower too, and everyone knows what happened when her whistle blew too loudly too often and people got tired of hearing it.

Yesterday I finally got to meet with a relatively well-connected member of the Ministry of the Environment here in Kinshasa. I was given his contact information from an influential conservationist that I met in Kyoto last year, to give you a sense of the power of collaboration and networking even here in Congo.

Lots of the government positions here are often arbitrary titles; men assigned to duties who might not necessarily care about their wards, making collaboration difficult if not impossible.

Most (not all) of the men I encountered, tasked with protecting the environment in Aketi fell into that basket, making my impassioned pleas on behalf of the chimpanzees I was trying so desperately to save that much less effective.

Yesterday, however, I told Minister L exactly what I'd witnessed in Aketi. I told him about the 44 orphans that Cleve and I had witnessed over the course of a little more than a year. I told him about the elephant and chimp meat in the markets, about the men who traveled along the main roads, without fear, their bicycle baskets laden with the distinctively smelly elephant meat, and yes, I told him of stories I'd heard of ladies in the market, paying off the local environment minister in order to continue selling illicit meats.

It could have gone terribly. Minister L could have taken it as a critique of his country, of his government, but the look on his face when I told him these tales suggested otherwise. He seemed genuinely horrified and appalled, and listened with rapt attention.

I don't hate his country, and he understood that. I've worked here now for over two years, and he saw my passion to protect its patrimony. I told him about my research, and he understood that I hope to safeguard the miners from disease as much as the chimpanzees. My French isn't by any means perfect, but he understood that the real problem in north Congo is that no one knows what's happening there, and therefore no one has the information to stop it.

One policeman on every major road (of which there are no more than 4) would inhibit the easy trafficking that happens now, and Minister L and I formulated a plan to meet with the local chiefs and ministers not only to educate but get such a regulation in place. It is now a distant goal, since it needs to be proposed, funded, structured, planned, but the fact that it was in great part his idea, and that HE seemed so passionate about it, motivates me to move forward with it as early as I can.

So often, the sense of infantilism seems to inhibit intuitive problem-solving here in Congo. If some NGO or some expat or some country will come in and plan it all and do it, why bother to even theorize? Yet there are some here who are capable, and motivated, and need only the structure and the means. It's important to support that, and after the productivity of my meeting yesterday, something that I feel committed to doing.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Avenue Colonel Mondjiba,Kinshasa,Democratic Republic of the Congo


Anonymous said...

Yay, go you. That's awesome! Makes me proud to know you.

Greg Sanders said...

Good work.

I think some of the infantilism just comes from being a country doing catch up growth. In 2008 and 2010 DR Congo had 6% real GDP growth which isn't China but it also isn't nothing.

The good thing about being a developing country is that it's a lot easier to solve problems the second time and thus experience catch up growth and dramatic improvements that don't show up in GDP. The complicated thing is that there's always a lot of things to choose from, so even motivated and driven people may miss a fair amount of low hanging fruit.

You obviously know the field end of things better than I. As you said sometimes it's just a matter of the wrong person in a position or just not caring about the issue in question. But it sounds like you found the right person and were able to give him the boost he needed to start working this problem.