Viral Conservation

A Bonobo in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, Democratic Republic of the Congo
A Bonobo in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, Democratic Republic of the Congo

In Brief

Can conservation go viral? Can a single community-based reserve become self-replicating by inspiring local people to create further reserves? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the model used for the Kokolopori Reserve—a protected area for bonobos, a matriarchal great ape that shares 98.8 percent of our DNA—has been replicated on the local level, by nearby rural communities. Created through a joint effort by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) and Albert Lokasola, a local leader, the reserve exemplifies an integrative approach to conservation, one in which outside conservationists understand the values and goals of the community before projects begin. All work done in the area uses a partnership model, and no project goes forward until the community has understood its purpose and clearly explained its impact and how it would further their own goals. With the guidance of local communities, BCI develops systems of conservation that are specific to the areas where it works, taking into account the region’s oldest traditions and ancestral values, its social and economic relationship with both the forest and the wildlife. In this way, the communities with whom it partners take ownership of conservation efforts and areas. Through the development of community-based reserves, they see the concrete improvement of the local economy and of education for both youths and adults. They are empowered to build off these successes in ways that they choose, using microfinance and cooperatives to run new initiatives. Neighboring communities learn about conservation from them, in a language that is familiar to them and, seeing the benefits, they begin to create their own protected areas, making conservation go viral.

Key Concepts

  • Local communities that take ownership of nature reserves provide a most just and sustainable conservation environment.

  • Communities want nature reserves when they see the benefits. NGOs have been following their lead. The concept has gone “viral” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Integrating local values into projects earns the people’s trust.

During a month-long stay in the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I was surprised to hear a teenage boy tell me, “Someday I, too, will create my own nature reserve.” He was from a nearby village and had been speaking of his admiration for Albert Lokasola, the local leader who’d done much to establish Kokolopori.

Kokolopori means “source of the Lopori River” and lies in the north of the DRC, just south of the Congo River, in the dense rainforests of Équateur Province. It was established in 2009 to protect the bonobo, an endangered matriarchal great ape that shares approximately 98.8 percent of human DNA and of which only 29,500 to 50,000 survive in the wild. But unlike national parks, the reserve is community-based, containing 35 villages, and the people who live there see the protected area as one of their greatest achievements and resources.

Community-based reserves became central to the conservation movement in October 1982, at the World National Parks Congress in Bali, Indonesia. Its members challenged the “Yellowstone model” that had emerged from the United States. They saw it as colonial and suitable only to uninhabited spaces, of which very few remained on earth. Likewise, in 1990, in his book, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Daniel Botkin argued that rather than being separate from nature, humans were an integral part of it, even in areas that we viewed as pristine or primeval. Whereas parks displaced indigenous people and contributed to the millions of refugees throughout the world—a situation that Mark Dowie describes in his 2005 Orion article “Conservation Refugees”—community-based reserves trained local people to become the stewards of the land. In such reserves, the land was divided into three zones: an integral zone exclusively for conservation, a buffer zone where existing homes and fields could remain but no new development could take place, and a development zone where a local economy could be fostered. The basic principle was that protecting wildlife was impossible if the people were starving. To save a species, conservationists had to build an economy.

The Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve is a stunning example of this approach to conservation and was created through a joint effort by the DC- and Kinshasa-based Bonobo Conservation Initiative and Vie Sauvage (literally “Wild Life”), a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that Albert Lotana Lokasola established. Lokasola, whose family had lived on the land for generations, began working with BCI in 2002. They surveyed an area of 1,847 square miles inhabited by approximately 12,000 people. They ran conservation education programs and agricultural projects, employed ecoguards and trackers from each of the future reserve’s villages to protect and habituate bonobos, and introduced disease resistant cassava since the mosaic virus had devastated the region’s crops. They built a clinic and established a technical college that received national accreditation and trained people in conservation techniques, computer skills, and sustainable agriculture. The reserve was functional well before it received the Congo’s official protected-area status in 2009.

The region, however, is extremely isolated. Travel there first requires a commercial flight from Kinshasa to Mbandaka, then two weeks upriver in motorized dugout canoes or a bushplane into the forest. From the port or landing strip (a field cut in the forest), a further four to six hours of driving is required along a dirt path, in a region with fewer than a half dozen functioning cars. While this isolation protected the bonobo habitat from large-scale logging, mining, and agriculture, it also made building a local economy difficult. Most people lived off subsistence farming and the harvesting of forest products, such as mushrooms and caterpillars. But despite the absence of a cash economy, the people had cash needs, whether for medicine, education, clothes, household goods, or travel to markets. BCI and Vie Sauvage diminished the urgency of these needs with the clinic and by providing basic services, such as a riverboat to ship their produce, and by increasing the region’s sustainability through agricultural projects. They also ran microcredit programs that allowed the local people to sell crops and livestock to BCI’s staff as well as to scientists, researchers, photographers, and journalists who began to visit the reserve in order to see the highly habituated bonobo population. The result of all these projects was a reserve whose story illustrates how Western conservationists can partner with a rural people so that both groups benefit from each other’s strengths.

But what most impressed me about the reserve was the degree to which it had inspired neighboring communities to create their own protected areas. Despite their limited means, three communities, each of a few thousand people, built their own conservation centers and began protecting areas of several hundred square miles. People volunteered to track bonobo groups in the rainforests, habituate them to human presence and guard them against poachers. Though a traditional hunting taboo against bonobos already offered them some protection, the wars between 1996 and 2003 weakened ancestral customs. Overhunting, pillaging soldiers, and the collapse of local agriculture forced the people to hunt and sell whatever they could find. After the civil war ended, habitat destruction reemerged as a major threat, and the growing political stability allowed the expansion of agriculture, including palm oil plantations, as well as prospecting by industrial logging companies and mining operations. Inspired by the model of the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, communities established conservation camps with gardens along networks of trails. Gradually, by publicizing the success of such efforts, BCI procured small grants for them, providing funding to equip and pay their trackers and camps, and expand their operations.

Conservation in the region became self-replicating in a way that might be described as viral. In a recent discussion about conservation that I led with American high school students, I asked them to define this signature term of their generation—to tell me what made something go viral. They responded simply but in a way that elucidates the arguments to come: they told me that for anything to go viral it had to have an element of “coolness.” This perfectly described the statement of the teenage boy in Kokolopori who wanted to create his own reserve someday. For him, Albert Lokasola, the reserve’s leader and the head of Vie Sauvage, embodied success.

While in Kokolopori, I tried to identify the conditions that made conservation self-replicating and acceptable, if not cool, in the eyes of the local people. I spent much of my time there listening to the Congolese tell the reserve’s story, and I discovered that the core of BCI’s philosophy was learning from the Congolese themselves, and basing their programs on what they learned. This leads me to the first of several lessons I’ve drawn from their experience.

1. Poverty does not equate to ignorance.

It goes almost without saying that rural people who have lived on their land for generations will know it better than outsiders ever could. Hunters often make the best trackers and ecoguards, and their knowledge of the forest can accelerate the work of conservation. The local people also know where different species live in the forest, and this knowledge can facilitate scientific surveys. It helps in establishing the zones of community-based reserves. Since certain zones are for people and others for endangered species, conservationists must know which areas should receive full protection. Of equal importance to their knowledge of the land is the people’s knowledge of themselves. They understand the social barriers to conservation and the ways that outsiders might overreach. BCI went to the people of Kokolopori humbly, explaining that they had come there to learn about the forests and understand the local culture. It was with this information that they not only created the following rules but also spread conservation.

Deni Béchard
A conservation meeting in Likongo, a community-initiated protected area near Kokolopori.

2. Formalities are not impediments but signs of social stability.

Many who work abroad make the error of rushing through formalities, whether meetings with chiefs or local officials. In usual Western mode, we want to hurry in, execute our project, collect our data for our reports, and leave. But each time BCI passed through villages in Équateur, their staff stopped and met with local chiefs, elders, and community leaders. Initially, I found the process interminable and had the sense that nothing was getting done. But I gradually understood that in a region marked by war and displacement, the formalities were an encouraging sign of social stability. The cumulative time spent with village elders has a much more significant long-term effect than many projects themselves have and can clear the path for future projects. When conservationists show respect for the elders’ roles within their communities, they are increasing the likelihood of the elders’ doing the same for them. The meetings also facilitate the spread of knowledge. In a country with few schools, books, or universities, knowledge is passed on through long, formal conversations. After BCI’s staff leave, all of the villagers gather around the elder to learn about his discussion. Foreign visitors are rare, and the people will repeat the elder’s words to everyone they meet. Within a day, thousands will likely know about the meeting and about conservation. Likewise, from such meetings, BCI learned a great deal about each area: the state of the forests, the local communities, and potential leaders. Families in the Congo are immense, and even a pesky official is connected to hundreds of others. He is more likely to speak with respect of those who have shown him respect and therefore to spread knowledge about conservation.

3. Projects can harm as much as help.

If we are ignorant of an area’s social structure and values, our efforts to help can easily have the opposite effect. For instance, outsiders who want to execute projects quickly often bypass formalities and throw money at problems. But a little money in an impoverished area can radically disturb the social order. The likelihood is that if a chief or leader is slow to accept a project, the person who comes forth to run it is most likely his competitor in some way. By funding that person, we can polarize the society and essentially find ourselves in the middle of a civil conflict. The wiser path is to understand the chief’s hesitations and take the time to earn his trust. Another example of how our actions can harm is a simple one that BCI encountered while doing community development. One of their staff approached the women in a village and asked if they would like to have a well drilled. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, the women didn’t speak up immediately. Only after BCI’s staff had done what they called Information Exchange, a process with structured feedback and sharing—and after the women fully understood that this would be their project and their decision—did they voice their concerns. BCI had thought that the women stood to benefit the most, since they wouldn’t have to carry water for miles every day, but they explained that going to the river was their only time away from the men. They go with their children and see sisters and aunts from other villages. They talk and tell stories, and the children play and forge bonds that will last through adulthood, creating relationships between villages. A well in each village would break this social connection.

4. Do not assume that you deserve to be trusted.

Both Westerners and conservationists have a long history in Africa, and rural people are well aware of the damage they have done. They have heard stories of villagers evicted from parks, and they have learned about Western governments and industries supporting corrupt leaders across Africa. They assume that Westerners have an interest and will benefit from whatever they are doing. In the case of conservation, they know that this is a career and that conservationists have much to gain from it. They have also seen conservationists and NGOs irresponsibly use money to achieve goals. Westerners often come in with savior mentalities, and the assumption that we deserve to be trusted causes us to skip steps and not take the proper time to build relationships and win loyalty. By respecting the people’s distrust, working with it carefully, and not relying on money, we can establish trust and make lasting achievements. Furthermore, by being anthropologists toward ourselves as much as toward others, we can understand how our own cultural values are hampering our progress. I have noticed that in many rural areas, local people spend a great deal of time explaining their traditions to outsiders, but the outsiders rarely reciprocate. In cases where the outsiders do, local people listen with fascination and curiosity, and change some of their own behaviors out of cultural sensitivity. When people gain a better understanding of the outsiders with whom they are working, they see themselves as equal partners in projects. Such exchanges facilitate the establishment of common goals, the lack of which zoologists Guy Cowlishaw and Robin Dunbar cite as a key factor in the failure of community-based reserves. Furthermore, outsiders rarely see how their own cultural preconceptions around power are impeding projects whereas they are quick to critique local cultures. From my experience, competition between NGOs and foreign workers in the field is equally if not more damaging than the conflicts between local people. Our sense of entitlement and especially our sense of exceptionalism can lead us to act without learning how we can most effectively take action.

Deni Béchard
A fisherman on the Lopori River, near the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, which has seen the emergence of very successful bonobo conservation efforts.

5. Do not humiliate people by studying them.

Albert Lokasola, the local leader who partnered with BCI to create the Kokolopori Reserve, emphasized to me the importance of not humiliating people. He would tell them that “because men and animals live together, the next step is to study and find what people need. Not to mock you, but to understand your needs.” Again, I understood the importance of local leadership. It is easy to forget how people might feel about foreigners looking in on their needs and struggles. One NGO study in the area determined that the majority of people owned only one pair of pants. It hadn’t occurred to me until I spoke with Lokasola how easily such a project could be humiliating. For decades, I had run across reproductions of Walker Evans’s photographs of rural Alabama families in the Great Depression—evocative portraits of people living in squalor. But years after having seen them for the first time, I read that many of the children in them later refused to be associated with the images. The memory of that time was too painful. They had gone on to live normal American lives and were eager to leave behind those years of brutal hardship, when they were barefoot and clothed in rags, living in shacks. This is a common oversight in development work and with the creation of reserves in desperately poor areas. The people there are conscious of everything they own, every detail of their environment that keeps them alive, and they are extremely conscious of what they don’t have, of feeling diminished by those who hope to help them. To win their full participation, conservationists must not make them see themselves as less valuable than the animal to be protected.

6. Do not confuse national with local.

Conservation groups often announce that they have “local” leaders; however, in many countries, they are confusing local with national. The Congo has over 250 ethnic groups, and communities want to be led by their own leaders. The history of abuse and exploitation by outsiders makes them wary, and they believe that only one of their own will truly represent their interests. Before we describe this as an African phenomenon, it’s worth noting how the same holds true for Americans. Someone fresh out of Manhattan taking a community leadership role in rural Texas is likely to run into problems. Furthermore, the logic of nurturing local leaders runs much deeper than simply avoiding ethnic conflicts. First of all, such leaders are repositories of knowledge about the place, its social structure, and how it fits into the region’s politics. They will know how to speak to the people in a way that they can hear and how to navigate potential conflicts. Secondly, conservation has to plan for the decades ahead and for periods that may be financially difficult. During times with little or no funding, outsiders often leave. If the leadership leaves, what happens to the reserve? The leadership needs to be deeply rooted in that place and have an investment. If their authority and power is tied up in the success of the conservation projects that they initiated, they are likely to protect them even through hard times. By undoing that work, they would essentially be undoing their reputation.

Deni Béchard
Dusk along the outskirts of Kinshasa, where Albert Lotana Lokasola runs the conservation organization Vie Sauvage for part of the year. Lokasola has become something of a celebrity for his conservation work.

6. Value the least valuable member of a team.

One of BCI’s principals has been that no team member is less important than another. If a tracker or ecoguard gets sick, they immediately find a way to get him to a hospital. In one case, a young boatman suffered a traumatic brain injury when hit by a motorcycle. BCI managed to fly him to a hospital even though people they knew said that the boatman wasn’t essential for their operations. The action, however, generated a great deal of support from local communities who realized that BCI wasn’t there just for its own goals. Building trust in these areas is difficult, and with families and communities so interconnected, their decision to help the young boatman allowed the local people to evaluate their intentions.

7. Use existing infrastructures and harness the culture’s values and traditional beliefs.

Two of the strongest cultural influences in the Congo are music and the Catholic Church. BCI set up a bonobo commission within the church and educated priests about conservation, resulting in the DRC’s Congress of Catholic Bishops’ decision to formally back BCI. Popular musicians exert a comparable influence on the culture. BCI approached several musicians, among them, Werrason, one of the Congo’s greatest pop stars. His influence is similar to that of Michael Jackson in the 1980s. The Congolese memorize his songs and dance moves, and, along with other musicians, he sets cultural standards, inspiring youths to dress in new, innovative ways. When he recorded a radio spot that explained the importance of bonobos, people in Équateur began to watch for orphan bonobos for sale in the markets. Until then, even the police hadn’t known that it was against the law to hunt or sell bonobos. In a culture where many people try to emulate Werrason, any person who reported a bonobo poacher would certainly appear cool. Furthermore, traditional beliefs can support conservation practices in a number of ways. For conservation to take root and thrive, its ideas and values need to reach the deepest strata of rural communities. Change does not occur only when their leaders ascribe to a foreign approach to conservation. It occurs when all people in a community—from the most to the least educated—understand the movement in familiar terms. BCI achieved this by learning from local people about indigenous conservation practices: sacred forests where hunting was not allowed and the animals went to breed, seasons when hunting was prohibited so that the animals could regenerate, as well as ancient taboos against overhunting or hunting humanlike bonobos. BCI hired traditional storytellers to travel through the reserve, singing folkloric songs about the ancestral friendship between bonobos and humans. They also had elders hold traditional ceremonies to support conservation and created events that allowed them to speak to the people about its significance. When the Congolese hear about conservation in this way, they feel that it comes from them, that it emerges from their values, and is not being imposed.

Milkweed Editions
Empty Hands, Open Arms by Deni Béchard.

While such solutions might seem obvious, making the most of every encounter and understanding the details of a foreign culture require incredible patience. The success of a project might have less to do with implementing its various stages than with laying a careful foundation through mutual understanding. What I heard repeatedly in Kokolopori was the degree to which the people there saw BCI’s staff as part of their community and family. And BCI repeatedly asserted its vision that, though overpopulation was putting pressure on rainforests and wildlife, humans were the solution. They repeatedly found new ways to encourage individual initiative within and around the reserve, and they celebrated the local people’s achievements.

Having established trust with the people of Kokolopori, BCI has been able to weather difficult financial periods and retain their support. And in turn, through a sense of ownership and deep appreciation, the people have integrated conservation into their value system. Like all human endeavors, their projects are imperfect, and everyone involved has struggled to learn from each other. But the enthusiasm generated through the resulting partnerships has led to the creation of a constellation of community-protected areas in the Congo, and to the beginning of a self-replicating conservation movement.