Corneille Ewango‘s job is harder than yours is. He’s a forest conservationist working in the Ituri forest of Eastern Congo. He’s trying to preserve the flora and fauna of this amazing region in the face of incredible odds: the poverty of people in the area and the stress of two major wars and the presence of rebel movements.
Ewango understands the challenges faced by poor people living in the region – he was a poacher as a child, working with his uncle who made his living fishing and hunting game. From age fourteen through seventeen, his main activities were hunting and collecting ivory. But he had a major life change when he went to University in Kisengani – he’d hoped to become a doctor to help his local community, but he began studying wildlife biology and botany instead.
In 1991, he began in internship in the Ituri forest. And in 1995, after he left a position as a teaching assistant at the university, he moved to Ituri permanently, and joined the Wildlife Conservation Society, the group responsible for protecting the 13,700 square kilometer reserve, which houses large populations of elephants, chimpanzees, okapi, forest giraffe, and 13 primate species. There are over 1,300 plant species there, some new and described for the first time.
Ewango’s timing was pretty bad. Shortly after he took the job, Laurent Kabila attacked and unseated Mobutu Sese Seko. As Mobutu’s soldiers fled to the East, they came through the Okapi forest reserve and looted everything in their path. Ewango found himself pinned between government and rebel forces and became paranoid about speaking, as speaking Lingala might identify himself as a government solider, which would be deadly in encountering a rebel. He considered fleeing, but home was 1,000km away.
Instead, he focused on preserving the collection of plants he and other researchers had assembled – samples from 4,500 plants, packed into cases and crates. Some were hidden away in local houses – the most valuable, he carried on a bicycle into Uganda to secure them.
The second war, he tells us, came as a surprise – he was listening to a football game on Worldspace, he tells us, when an African World War, involving three rebel movements and two militias, came to Ituri. All these groups of soliders focused on resource extraction: taking ivory, rhino horn, leopard skin and teeth, mahogany logs, gold, coltan, cassiterite and diamonds from the forest and selling them to finance their movements. Pygmies who lived in the forest were killed or forced to migrate, and Ewango worked to get them medicines and places to live.
Most importantly, he became a one man war reporting bureau, using an Iridium satellite phone, a laptop and a solar panel to report the war’s progress, the abuse of women, the atrocities committed to NGOs in the US and Europe. These groups, including UNESCO, helped amplify these stories to a wider world. “People started suspecting – ‘What we do in the morning, in the afternoon it’s on BBC?'”
He was forced to play ignorant when his equipment was found by soldiers, telling them he had no idea how it worked.
Now, in a more peaceful time, he’s managing a research project on global warming and the impact of the Ituri forest in mitigating carbon dioxide emissions. He’s closely studying trees in a 40 acre area and has 15 years of detailed data that may help explain the impact of global warming on forests and forests’ role in fighting warming.
Ewango leaves us with a powerful note about the importance of moving away from “the language of guns”, the language that dominated Congo during his years and is currently destroying Darfur. Powerful words from a man who’s seen more hardship and done more hard work that most of us could ever imagine.