When I was a child, our home was at the edge of the Itombwe Forest in Eastern Congo. It was a beautiful area and every day I could go outside and see antelope and other animals. But now the forest is a good 100 kilometers away, due to the slash and burn practices of the various people groups, whether subsistence farmers or cattle ranchers who move from site to site as they exhaust the soil at each location.
As if an answer to prayer, on my first trip to the U.S. in 2012, I was introduced to Osprey Oriele Lake, founder of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, International (WECAN). I told Osprey of the desperate environmental conditions of my homeland and we began to explore how we might collaborate to change the paradigm of environmental destruction in the vast savannah that my once forested homeland had become. Soon thereafter I started to build my vision for my remote homeland; a Center for development in this mostly forgotten corner of the world. My idea was to make the Center a gathering place for women; a facility where we might together do something that would otherwise be impossible. I began a newsletter campaign and asked for donations and support and over the last two years have built a Center with about 3,000 square feet of total space to fill with programs for women and our heartland.
Already underway is a computer training program to teach digital literacy as well as to connect my sisters in this disconnected area to a world they’ve been kept from for far too long. We have solar electricity and satellite internet so now old women are video Skyping with grandchildren they’ve never seen before. Young women are coming to write their stories and to exchange with other women around the world; exploring the possibilities. We have a reusable sani-pad industry targeting the thousands of adolescent school girls in the area who have no other solution and as a result, miss one week of school every month which leads to a very high dropout rate and an equally high rate of early teen marriages.
All of these are really great initiatives and having a wonderful impact, but the thing that has drawn the greatest number of mature women together is our hope of returning this great mountainous savannah to the forested paradise we knew as little girls; a land rich in biodiversity as part of world’s second largest rainforest.
As it is, local communities depend 100% on the environment’s resources. And these days, the entire population of this vast region are suffering the effects of years and years of destructive behavior, with a shortfall in agricultural yield as well as proximate fuelwood, though their continued destruction of the forest continues unabated.
There is a serious lack of governance in this remote area, which is perhaps the greatest threat to the environment. But even the national government seems to operate without a conscience. Recently, the government opened up the Virunga National Park, listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site, for oil exploration. The government seems to only have interest in participating in activities that provide immediate financial rewards. As one might imagine, trying to work in such an environment is very challenging.
Without any local environmental authorities, there is no awareness at all communicated to the population. There are no strategic plans to be implemented at the local level. The Itombwe sector and its forest is left unmanaged, its population insulated and undisciplined from sound awareness regarding the area’s import and impact in the region, and the world. In fact, SAFECO must initiate everything in Itombwe. We must interest and engage the government in environmental protection programs instead of the other way around. A recent example is when SAFECO acting as WECAN-Congo, wanted to officially launch tree planting activities in Itombwe. In order to get the Administrator of Mwenga territory to preside over the event, we had to pay for him and his entourage to travel the two days to reach our event, and provide food and lodging for them once they arrived. In all the trainings and events we organized, we had to pay incentives for all the local government authorities that participated. It was indeed a historic event, and an event the government fully supported, at our expense.
The women of Itombwe are the primary providers for their families and therefore play a key socio-economic role, though not recognized by the patriarchal system that governs life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their domestic duties include agricultural and small-animal farming, trading at the local market, cooking, cleaning, firewood collection, fetching water, and caring for the many children.
As an organization living and working in Congo, with a passion to change the direction things are going, WECAN-Congo has developed a strategy to enable us to accomplish our mission. First of all, we have taken it on ourselves to inform and educate the population about climate change. Everyone living in the remote forested areas, or the areas that used to be forested but are now called the high plains, recognizes how the weather has changed, but they are not aware that what we are experiencing is a global issue, nor that Congo, having the second largest rainforest in the world (and how we as citizens and stewards of this rainforest), can have the second largest impact. When they learn of such things they are profoundly shocked to think that how they use the forest impacts the whole world. The fact that our organization, SAFECO, is WECAN-Congo, working these things in partnership with WECAN International, is astounding to them and causes a revolutionary change in their thinking; especially the thinking of women who are the ones that are daily harvesting wood for cooking, heat, and light. Understanding the facts about climate change and the important role Congolese women can play in reversing the damage done, having them individually add their signatures to the WECAN International Declaration, causes them to be open to alternative methods of dealing with their daily needs for cooking, heat, and light, which otherwise would be impossible to affect.
The second thing we do is create Tree Planting Movements in all the surrounding locales. These Movements were initiated as a result of the Inaugural Re-Forestation of the Itombwe Sector Event, held with the full support and participation of the Territory Administrator. Now we are initiating Tree Planting Movements in all the surrounding villages.
WECAN International has been a tremendous partner in all this. In September 2013, I was able to participate in the WECAN Climate Summit in New York along with women climate activists from all over the world. Subsequently SAFECO became WECAN-Congo for our collaborative efforts working with women and their communities living in and around the Itombwe forest. SAFECO then, acting as WECAN-Congo has since held numerous workshop trainings, created local workforce committees in a dozen communities and regions surrounding the Itombwe forest, joined the participants to the WECAN-Congo actions, having them sign the WECAN Climate Declaration, introduced Improved Cookstoves and solar lighting options, hosted a workshop for the local committee leaders and the provincial government conservation authorities in the capital city of Bukavu, created a WECAN-Congo Tree Nursery, planted hundreds of trees in the Itombwe Sector, and created an annual event named by the Territory Administrator as the Itombwe Sector Reforestation Event.
The women of WECAN-Congo are determined to change things in our little world of Itombwe, for ourselves and for the rest of the world. We are taking our stewardship seriously. We know that the difference we make not only affects our world, but the rest of our planet. We feel the weight of it all and are doing our part. To our sisters around the world we say: We are <strong>TOGETHER!</strong>