Dr. Jane Goodall and the Critical Role of Development in Environmental Conservation
Tucked in the corner of southwestern Rwanda, along the borders of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo and about four hours outside of Rwanda’s capital city is one of the most beautiful places in the world, Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Officially established as a national park in 2004, Nyungwe is a moist, cool rainforest that is home to a wide variety of rare plants and animals, including more than 13 different primates, 275 birds, and 1,000 plants, some of which have only been found in Nyungwe.
This past week, we had opportunity to welcome a very special guest visiting the park for the very first time — Dr. Jane Goodall.
Dr. Goodall is the famed primatologist who has dedicated her life to studying chimpanzees and traveling around the world telling people about the importance of conservation. Even at nearly 80 years old, she literally never stays in the same place for more than three weeks at a time. Dr. Goodall came to Rwanda to highlight the importance of protecting natural resources like Nyungwe and to explore future partnerships in conservation education between her organization, the Jane Goodall Institute, and local and international organizations already working in the Park.
During her visit, we had the opportunity to hear to her speak to park staff. What really stuck out was the emphasis she placed on the critical linkage between community development and conservation efforts. They go hand and hand.
“The poverty of people is one of the biggest problems for the environment. People must choose between eating today by destroying nature, or starving.” She acknowledged that anyone faced with that choice would choose food, but when you first acknowledge and meet the needs of people, they then “become your partners in conservation.”
Dr. Goodall also challenged us to think a bit deeper and more long-term. If we don’t act, what happens when all of the natural resources are gone? What happens when animals go extinct or water sources have dried up because we didn’t protect the forests that sheltered them? History tells us the unfortunate truth: in many cases, conflict ensues.
Here’s a real life example. Nyungwe supplies 70 percent of Rwanda’s water and is a source of water for people who live as far north as Egypt. What would happen if Nyungwe were destroyed and the water was all gone? Dr. Goodall was blunt: “If water runs out in Nyungwe, people will pick up guns.”
But when investing in the environment, we must also invest in people. We need to teach people about the importance of conservation, and more importantly help individuals and communities maintain their livelihoods in sustainable ways.
USAID has been working in Nyungwe since the mid-1980s. Our work there has helped to build an eco-tourism industry through activities like trail maintenance, training park guides, and creating partnerships with the private sector to invest in things like lodging around the park. We’re also working with communities living in and around Nyungwe to help them earn steady incomes in ways that don’t deplete the park’s resources.
One community just outside the park entrance has formed a cooperative and created what they call a “cultural village,” giving visitors another place to stop and a fascinating peek into Rwandan culture. The community has replicated traditional Rwandan houses (including the King’s Palace) where you can stay overnight, see traditional dance performances, and have a snack with a spectacular view of the forest. The community is doing quite well, and many of the cooperative members have said that instances of villagers engaging in activities like poaching for income has decreased as a result.
Dr. Goodall’s guidance about the necessity of pairing environmental conservation with development rings true in places like Nyungwe National Park as well as the communities we all live in. And as Dr. Goodall stressed – in her seemingly endless optimism – it’s up to us: “Every single one of us matters, every single one of us has a role, and every single one of us can make a difference.”