René Ngongo

Awarded 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.

René Ngongo is a renowned Congolese environmental activist, who has since 1994 campaigned to protect the Congo rainforest, which is the world’s second-largest tropical forest after that of the Amazon. He has pushed for the conservation and sustainable use of the forest in the face of political pressures, corporate exploitation and even violent conflicts in the country.

He was the founder and coordinator of the NGO OCEAN (Organisation concertée des écologistes et amis de la nature) and later also founded Greenpeace Congo. The first focus of Ngongo’s work was to promote sustainable land use models that would allow the local population to satisfy their needs for food and to receive a better income without destroying the forest.

In 2014, Ngongo became the co-founder and president of Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) located in southern DRC. The organisation is a grassroots platform for the development of new economic initiatives based on the production and sale of critical art. Besides economic empowerment, the project aims to combat climate change through the restoration and sustainable use of former plantations.

Those forests should not be considered merely as raw material to be exported and should neither only be seen as a carbon reservoir. Before anything else, it is a living environment.

René Ngongo, 2009 Laureate

The world's second-largest rainforest

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. Forests are in danger of being cut down both by poor local people who cut the forest to satisfy their need for food and fuelwood and also due to commercial logging and mining.

Seeing these threats, René Ngongo founded and became the national coordinator of OCEAN (Organisation concertée des écologistes et amis de la nature) in 1994. 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, he worked for Greenpeace to build up the new Greenpeace DRC office; in July 2012 he took up a position with 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, Ngongo works as a consultant and expert in environmental and social management. In 2014, he became the co-founder and president of Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) located in southern DRC. The organisation is a grassroots platform for the development of new economic initiatives based on the production and sale of critical art. Besides economic empowerment, the project aims to combat climate change through the restoration and sustainable use of former plantations.

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 educational tools and provided trainings for farmers to learn about alternatives to the destructive "slash and burn" agriculture. In Kisangani, he set up 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 trees were planted 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 with 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 argues that further destruction of the Congo rainforest would put local communities, who depend on the forest for their livelihoods, at great risk. It would also 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 DRC 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.

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