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Congo activist works to halt deforestation

Rene Ngongo educates Congolese, seeks First World deal to save vital rainforest.

KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo — One day Rene Ngongo was given a satellite map. On it he saw the mighty bend in the Congo River and on its northern bank, Kisangani a
ramshackle city of rusting cranes, rundown art deco buildings and bone-shaking roads that sweats in the equatorial sun.

Around the city he saw the Congo rainforest in patches of uniform blue but unnatural geometric chunks had been chopped out, the forest replaced with blackened land and little houses.

“It really showed me that the forest was disappearing,” Ngongo recalled on a recent warm Kisangani night. “It confirmed what I already knew from my research but it was this satellite picture that shocked me into really trying to conserve our forests.”

Seventeen years later Ngongo’s efforts will be recognised when he receives a Right Livelihood Award this month. Also known as the Alternative Nobels, the annual awards are “for outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people.”

Previous laureates have included Wangari Maathai, the renowned Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, with whom Ngongo is increasingly compared.

Ngongo was born in 1961 in Goma in the far east of this huge Central African country.

“When I was growing up there were animals all around the city and when I visited my aunt who lived nearby in Virunga park we couldn’t leave the house for all the wild animals around,” he said.

Watching the park rangers as they worked to conserve the forest and animals of Virunga was inspiration for Ngongo who went on to study biology at university in Kisangani in the heart of Congo’s rainforest.

He became an activist almost by accident as he went to explain to the communities the damage that slash and burn agriculture was doing to the forests and to teach forms of sustainable agriculture instead.

Some warned him to stay in the classroom. “They criticized me saying I was a teacher not an activist,” he said. Ngongo responded by setting up in 1994 a conservation group called OCEAN, the acronym for the name in French, the Organisation Concertee des Ecologistes et Amis de la Nature.

Three years later the war came to Kisangani. Ahead of an advancing army of vengeful Rwandan Tutsis came hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees and soldiers fleeing for their lives, a shuffling city’s worth of people marching through the forest and living off whatever
they could find.