René Ngongo

(2009, Democratic Republic of Congo)

...for his courage in confronting the forces that are destroying the Congo's rainforests and building political support for their conservation and sustainable use.

About

The Congo rainforest, in global importance second only to that of the Amazon, is under grave threat from the aftermath of war, population pressure and corporate exploitation. Since 1994, including through the civil war from 1996-2002, René Ngongo has engaged, at great personal risk, in popular campaigning, political advocacy and practical initiatives to confront the destroyers of the rainforest and help create the political conditions that could halt its destruction and bring about its conservation and sustainable use.

Contact Details

René Ngongo
No 322
Avenue Lumumba
Commune Ibanda/Nguba
Ville de Bukavu
D.R. CONGO

Biography

Life and career

René Ngongo was born in Goma in October 1961, and took a Bachelor in biology from the University of Kisangani in 1987. It soon became clear to him that the Congo rainforest, the second largest tropical forest in the world, is under very grave threat - both because of the poverty of local people who cut the forest to satisfy their need for food and fuelwood and because of commercial logging and mining.

In 1994 Ngongo founded, and became the national coordinator of, OCEAN (Organisation concertée des écologistes et amis de la nature). OCEAN started as an environmental NGO in Kisangani, but has managed to reach out to the entire country through the work of volunteers. OCEAN's main activities are agroforestry, urban tree-planting, reforestation nurseries for the most threatened species, distribution of improved cooking stoves, monitoring of the exploitation of natural resources, education, especially through radio and TV broadcasts, and the advocacy and lobbying on local, national and international level. 

Ngongo has also worked both for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). From 2008 to 2011, Ngongo worked for Greenpeace to build up the new Greenpeace DRC office; in July 2012 he took up a position at the WWF in the DRC. He handed over the leadership of OCEAN to a younger colleague and became a member of its Administrative Council instead.
Currently, René Ngongo is based in Bukavu, eastern DRC, as a consultant and expert in environmental and social management. He is working with Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI) on a project to manage the environmental and social impacts resulting from the construction of major roads in North and South Kivu.

Promoting sustainable land use 

The first focus of Ngongo's work was to promote sustainable land use models that would allow the local population to satisfy their need for food and fuelwood, and to receive a better income, without destroying the forest. From 1992 to 2000, Ngongo had a weekly radio programme on nature protection and the impact of deforestation called 'L'Homme et son Environnement - MAZINGIRA'. At the same time, Ngongo developed pedagogical tools and provided trainings for farmers to learn about alternatives to the destructive "slash and burn" agriculture. He created in Kisangani demonstration fields for sustainable agricultural techniques like agroforestry (growing food in the forest without destroying it) and taught locals how to save on fuelwood through improved cooking stoves. 

Ngongo also co-ordinated the creation of a seedling plantation with 20,000 seedlings of the most exploited tree species in the Eastern province. This plantation provided trees for several events such as 'green city' (Ville Verte) during which tree planting took place in abandoned parks, along avenues and in schools. Children were actively involved in these events to ensure widespread dissemination of the environmental messages.

Exposing destructive mining and logging

Throughout the wartime years of 1996-2002 Ngongo was actively monitoring the exploitation of natural resources by the different warring parties. Many international organisations and research institutes recognised OCEAN as a key source of information. For instance, Ngongo's research on illegal mining operations (diamonds and other minerals) contributed to the UN Security Council expert panel report on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC. Ngongo is convinced that the struggle for the control over natural resources was the main driving force of the conflicts in the DRC that left millions of people dead. 

Since the civil war ended, the destruction of the Congo rainforest has accelerated even more, because the DRC is now safe terrain for the big forestry multinationals to operate. OCEAN became the key organisation exposing irresponsible logging practices as well as weak governance and a lack of transparency in the forest and mining sectors. Not surprisingly, Ngongo has experienced a considerable amount of threats, manipulation and intimidation.

Today, the rainforests of the DRC are at a crossroads. In January 2009, the government finished a legal review of 156 forest concessions (on 20 million hectares) and concluded that 91 of them had been illegal. However, in September 2009, several companies whose contracts had been declared illegal by the joint ministerial commission in January continued their activities in total impunity. Thus, it is one of Ngongo's priorities to campaign for the implementation of the government's decision and for respecting the moratorium on new logging activities in the forests of the DRC. He is arguing that the further destruction of the Congo rainforest would put local communities, who depend on the forest for their livelihoods, at great risk. It would also further accelerate global warming and make the DRC more vulnerable to its effects. 

Capacity building

Much of Ngongo's work is dedicated to strengthening the knowledge and capabilities of NGOs, politicians and local authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo to effectively protect the forest. He has coordinated training sessions for national and provincial politicians on the forest code. OCEAN is working with local communities affected by road construction projects to make sure that their voices are heard. In addition, Ngongo's ongoing support of grassroots initiatives provided a strong basis for the development of the 'Réseau des Ressources Naturelles', a Congolese umbrella organisation for civil society groups working on mining and forestry issues. Ngongo has also organised many consultations with politicians, donors and industry representatives to promote sustainable forestry practices.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by René Ngongo

December 4th, 2009

(English translation)

At the beginning of the Nineties, when my colleagues and I took the decision to create OCEAN (Organisation Concertée des Ecologistes et Amis de la Nature - Concerted organisation of environmentalists and friends of nature), we were far from thinking that this little gathering of a few ecologists who had graduated from Kisangani University and a few other nature lovers, was going to have such an impact all over the country and would make the Congolese forests' cry of distress heard (unfortunately those forests are getting increasingly quiet). Neither did we imagine that it would lead to an international renowned prize, the Right Livelihood Award, known as the '"Alternative Nobel Prize", and for which we have gathered tonight in the beautiful setting that is the Swedish Parliament.

What could be said about the path we chose for this great and inspiring mission? The original goal was to contribute to the preservation and restoration of the ecological balance of natural ecosystems and promote socio-economic development that will guarantee rights and protect interests of basic communities, by reasonably managing the environment, and by protecting and valorising the biodiversity.

Given the multiple threats and growing pressure on forest resources, it was crucial for us to save the last rainforests, not only to preserve a heritage that is extremely rich in biodiversity, but also in order to limit climate instabilities that were already obvious at that time. We immediately launched an awareness campaign through the media (radio, television, etc.) and organised 'environmental days'. These days brought moments of strong emotion and awareness about the reasons and the extent of deforestation. It also showed the urgency to find appropriate solutions. We thus launched various sub-programmes of PLICODE (Programme de Lutte Intégrée de la Déforestation - Programme for an integrated fight against deforestation), including agroforestry, schools and 'green towns', improvement stoves, ex-situ preservation with a plant nursery for more than 20,000 seedlings of the most useful trees, etc. One financial supporter was the Netherlands Committee of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Our involvement in the implementation of the Agroforestry 3H project of Rotary International and the LUC project, in a partnership between the University of Kisangani and the University of Limburg in Belgium, will allow us to get closer to local and indigenous communities. It will also help us realize that is possible to reduce pressure on forest resources and to contribute effectively to the preservation of our forests at a lower cost. These projects, most of which were implemented during the war in eastern DRC represent real alternatives to the an industrial exploitation of our forests that has shown its limits in terms of local and national development. They should inspire policy makers and financiers who are soon to gather in Copenhagen.

Logging, like other mining products (diamond, gold, coltan, cassiterite, etc.), has played a role in the recurrent armed conflicts that killed over 3 million Congolese. Forest products have not only served as a source of revenue for armed factions but also as a war booty for foreign armies that engaged in battles on Congolese territory in order to gain better control of natural resources (a 6 days war in Kisangani including heavy artillery coincided with our celebration of the World Environment Day in 2000). Reports by UN experts regarding the exploitation of natural resources in the DRC have confirmed our field data and demonstrated that most of the wood illegally logged in violation of environmental and social standards is passing through the harbours of Mombasa in Kenya and Douala in Cameroon before leaving the continent. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has highlighted the most worrying connection between international crime and serious exploitation of our natural resources: When he spoke about the eastern DRC in July 2003, he said: "the companies that finance theses crimes should know that they will be prosecuted"... Six years later we are still waiting for the prosecutions to start, which would discourage any troublemaker from replacing our forests by palm oil plantations for the production of biofuels - another one of the so-called good ideas to save the climate. Some criminals do not hesitate to cut hundreds of trees and leave the logs in the forest without any explanation. The communities want these crimes to be considered crimes against humanity.

Throughout our history, the abundance of natural resources has not benefited the Congolese people who have experienced a paradox: the population is economically poor, whereas the territory is naturally rich. In 2001, during one of our radio broadcasts in Kisangani, a prominent Belgian journalist, Roger Huisman, also said: "Nowadays Congolese are flowing into Europe in search of economic exile, but you can be certain that tomorrow, if you preserve your forests, it will be us Europeans who will come to you to seek ecological exile..." How could this prophecy become reality if our forests are not protected from any kind of threat and lacks a trained forestry administration able to provide adequate supervision?

As a reminder, DRC's forest covers around 145 million hectares, which represents 62% of the country. It is the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon. It sequesters carbon and slows climate change on a global scale. It is a key asset in international efforts against climate change. It also helps regulate the water regime of one of the largest basins in the world, the Congo Basin. On a worldwide scale, our country ranks fifth in the so-called mega-biodiversity for the diversity of plants and animals. It is home to many endemic species not found anywhere else. Three out of the four great apes species can be found in the DRC. These forests play a vital role for the survival of the 40 million Congolese living in rural areas that depend on forest resources for food ('supermarket'), medicine ('pharmacy'), fuel wood and building materials. The forest is providing for their basic needs and giving them income.

The DRC has the heavy responsibility to guarantee, in partnership with the international community, the sustainability of a heritage that is essential to the survival of the Congolese population and of mankind at large.

The Brussels Declaration summarized the interest and commitment to these forests as follows: "The forests of DRC are a shared national heritage of priceless value for the Congolese people and for humanity. They must be managed in order to reduce poverty and to protect the environment." Considering the increasing pressures exerted on these forests for various reasons, sustainable management has become a vital necessity.

But the Congolese forest will suffer from increasing pressure: overpopulation, a growing economy and infrastructure with rising energy needs on a national and international level (industrial plantations for agrofuels), mining, and a shift in global demand for lumber.

I just came back from Bumba, in the northern part of the DRC, where logging causes many problems. Here local and indigenous communities struggle with a lack of community consultation in the allotment of concessions, disappearance of medicinal plants, drying up of some water sources, vanishing and scarcity of game and snails, logging of trees that are home to caterpillars, etc.

Joint objectives:

  • Contribute to the fight against climate change
  • Strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest communities - the main caretakers of the forest (especially the CLIP)
  • Fight against poverty (alternatives)
  • Preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • More transparency, and good governance and management control of the forest
  Pictures
 Videos

Congo Solar Power Innovation

Publications

2009-12-04 Open letter to the World Bank. Greenpeace et al.
English Version
French Version

Links

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

E-mail: