Journalist Béchard (Cures for Hunger: A Memoir, 2012, etc.), a foreign correspondent familiar with war zones, probes beneath headlines describing the Congo as “a country of such inhumanity that we find it incomprehensible” and finds another, more hopeful reality.
The author explains that he was drawn to the Congo because its tropical rain forests play a crucial role in preventing climate change. As the area has become more stable politically after years of civil war, the threat of deforestation is looming due to the renewed, large-scale corporate exploitation of its valuable mineral resources. This also endangers the small remaining population of bonobos, “humanity's closest living relative alongside the chimpanzee,” whose only natural habitat is the Congolese rain forest. Establishment of more traditional national parks, which exclude local farming, is not a viable solution, since the forests have become a refuge for Congolese forced out of their homes by civil war. Béchard learned that a small NGO, Bonobo Conservation Initiative, founded by American conservationists, offers an alternative model: a partnership among the BCI villages to preserve the rain forest and protect the bonobos. Villagers agree to voluntarily restrict their farming to designated areas; in return, they are employed in various jobs—e.g., tracking the bonobos and guarding them from poachers. The BCI takes responsibility for providing medical care and primary schools, as well as access to higher education. Graduates trained in environmental science then become part of the management. While the immediate BCI focus is to preserve the bonobo population, its broader purpose is to develop ecotourism as a viable economic alternative to corporate exploitation. The author profiles Americans and Congolese who are involved in this visionary effort to meld traditional and modern values in service of a planetary imperative.
Béchard's adventurous travels in the Congo offer spice to this rich, complex account.