Madeleine Bwengehas worked all her life to preserve and protect the environment in a country rich in natural resources but mired in conflict. She empowers women to participate in the environmental decisions that affect their lives.
"We must educate women to engage on environmental issues."
It was through my father that I learned to love nature. I saw him plant trees all around our family home. These trees grew and became natural homes for birds, who sang each morning to wake us. They also served as the border between our land and that of our neighbor next door; if there was ever a land dispute, the officials who dealt with it would look to these trees.
My father also planted fruit trees on the corners of our land, which produced beautiful fruit each season for us to eat. Some of these trees also gave us medicine to help nurse illnesses. And their sticks and leaves helped my family construct our house and animal pens.
All these things made an impression on me when I was a young girl. This is why I have fought for the protection of the environment in the Congo for the past thirty years.
I lack the proper words to express the beauty of my country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indeed, it is one of the largest countries in Africa and certainly one of the richest in terms of both renewable and non-renewable natural resources, making it fertile ground for environmentally sustainable development.
My country has a dense river network. The Congo River, the fifth largest river in the world, is the second greatest in terms of estimated average flow and has enormous energy potential. My country also contains 170 million hectares of natural forests representing approximately 10% of all tropical forests in the world and more than 47% of African tropical forests.
Unfortunately conflict motivated by greed over resources seems to continuously threaten the peace and natural world of the DRC. Our forests are ruthlessly looted and the resulting deforestation threatens biodiversity of flora and fauna and advances climate change. Looting of our rich natural resources also leads to outright war, and the insecurity caused by wars perpetuates poverty, rape of women and girls, homicide, and other human rights violations.
After completing my studies in 1979, I found myself, as if by magic, working in the Ministry of Environment, Conservation of Nature, and Tourism, though I was only 20 years old. Four years later, I became the first woman Supervisor of the Environment in our country. According to my higher-ups, my promotion was a trial run because they didn't think that a woman could manage the environmental department.
I successfully proved them wrong, and over the years went on to serve as office manager and later as chief of the environmental division in my province of South Kivu. Today I pursue my passion for nature through my work with conservation and environmental education organizations. I continue to raise awareness through local media programs, newspaper articles, and direct engagement with the Congolese people. My initiatives have recently prompted the National Minister of the Environment to appoint me as head of Information and Environmental Education in the South Kivu Province.
Some of the projects we have in the works: the rehabilitation of natural sites degraded by deforestation; the creation of environmental education programs in both French and Swahili for radio and television; creating fertilizer briquettes to help mitigate the effects of deforestation in Kivu; establishing a library and an environmental center for public use and education; researching Congolese customs and traditions that advocate the protection of the environment; researching the infringement of women’s rights at artisanal mining sites; and raising awareness among young people about environmental protection in North and South Kivu.
Unfortunately I don’t see many other women active in this sector. Although women are typically excluded from all things concerning the management of their environment, I believe it is essential to encourage women’s involvement in the environmental decisions that affect their lives. Without women’s participation, women have no say in how natural resources are managed in the Congo, and they do not benefit from their profitable use.
The negative effects of mining are extensively felt in our provinces, and particularly by women. Compelled by war and poverty, women come to mining sites to work as prostitutes, putting them at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS. Then there are the women who work deep inside the mines carrying heavy loads. Women have died carrying packages greater than their own weight, and women who are pregnant are at risk of miscarriage and other health threats due to hard physical labor and exposure to the toxic dust of mineral particulates.
Because women are absent in environmental organizations, they do not enjoy the benefits of our country’s natural resources, but instead bear the brunt of the consequences of environmental exploitation and the violent conflicts it provokes. To change this, we must educate women to engage on environmental issues.
When you educate women, you educate the whole nation. I believe that the Congolese family, and women especially, have an important role to play in teaching our children to love and value the environment. Children who learn, as I did, to appreciate the natural world will grow up to protect it.