Prudence Mazambi and Pascal Murhula Balezi, the Democratic Republic of Congo
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the area’s instability and prevalent violence, two young conservationists fight to protect the environment through comics, theatre performances, radio programmes and reforestation initiatives.
Prudence and Pascal live in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a city of 240,000 inhabitants on the shores of Lake Kivu. This region, situated at the eastern border of the country, has been at the epicentre of armed conflict since 1994. It started with the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide which set off a decade and a half of hostilities involving national armed forces and a multinational assortment of militia and insurgent groups from the Great Lakes area. Disease and starvation, atrocious human rights violations, and the displacement of 3.4 million people have had an indelible impact on the region.
Prudence and Pascal, now in their mid 20s, are part of a generation that grew up in the context of almost permanent instability and violence. And yet, remarkably, in the midst of this dramatically precarious environment, they have developed a passionate commitment to the protection of the rich natural treasures of their region. These include the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a World Heritage Site which is home to many rare species, particularly the endangered Eastern Lowland Gorilla.
Along with 50 of their fellow students at the Institut Superieur Pedagogique, where they are preparing to become Biology teachers, they have formed an active group called Club des Amis de la Nature. The group engages in various activities in the villages surrounding the Kahuzi-Biega National Park with the objective of raising awareness about its value and promoting a respectful and sustainable management of the buffer zone. Their environmental education campaigns include the use of comics, theatre performances, radio programmes, conferences and tree planting and reforestation initiatives with the participation of the local community.
They also use the mystical bond that certain clans or families have to animals which they strongly identify with. These emblematic animals guarantee social cohesion and cultural transmission within the communities and it is this special relationship that has been the basis for traditional environmental laws which strictly prohibit hurting or killing them. Club des Amis de la Nature involves families in the task of monitoring changes in the numbers and behavior of particularly endangered species that are important to them. One of their immediate objectives is to introduce environmental education as an integral part of the school curriculum.
Prudence and Pascal see their work as an existential endeavour. Prudence, who grew up in a family of farmers with a strong attachment to nature, points out the vital relationship between peace and conservation:
|“Life begins with the first tree and will finish when we cut the last one. We need action now to conserve our forests and we also need peace – if not, we will lose the last gorillas of our planet,” she says.|
Pascal believes that the very continuity of their culture and values is deeply dependent on the survival of the forest with its totem animals and special places where rituals and initiations have taken place as far back as people can remember.
The situation is still dangerous in the Kivu area. Although civil unrest has somewhat subsided, militias and rebel groups are still present in the region and control the exploitation of wood and minerals such as coltan, gold and diamonds through which they finance their activities. The young members of the Club des Amis de la Nature take inspiration from the old guards of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, several of whom lost their lives while fighting off armed groups in an eventually successful struggle to regain control of the Park.
Pascal and Prudence participated in the International Youth Forum Go4BioDiv, organized by IUCN, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the German Development Cooperation GIZ and other partners. The forum took place in October 2010, parallel to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Japan, and gathered young men and women representing World Heritage Sites from around the world who shared their experiences and concerns regarding conservation issues. An exhibition presenting the 24 World Heritage sites of the participants of Go4BioDiv is currently being featured at IUCN Headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.