KISANGANI, Democratic Republic of Congo — One day Rene Ngongo was given a satellite map. On it he saw the mighty bend in the Congo River and on its northern bank, Kisangani a ramshackle city of rusting cranes, rundown art deco buildings and bone-shaking roads that sweats in the equatorial sun.
Around the city he saw the Congo rainforest in patches of uniform blue but unnatural geometric chunks had been chopped out, the forest replaced with blackened land and little houses.
“It really showed me that the forest was disappearing,” Ngongo recalled on a recent warm Kisangani night. “It confirmed what I already knew from my research but it was this satellite picture that shocked me into really trying to conserve our forests.”
Seventeen years later Ngongo’s efforts will be recognised when he receives a Right Livelihood Award this month. Also known as the Alternative Nobels, the annual awards are “for outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people.”
Previous laureates have included Wangari Maathai, the renowned Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, with whom Ngongo is increasingly compared.
Ngongo was born in 1961 in Goma in the far east of this huge Central African country.
“When I was growing up there were animals all around the city and when I visited my aunt who lived nearby in Virunga park we couldn’t leave the house for all the wild animals around,” he said.
Watching the park rangers as they worked to conserve the forest and animals of Virunga was inspiration for Ngongo who went on to study biology at university in Kisangani in the heart of Congo’s rainforest.
He became an activist almost by accident as he went to explain to the communities the damage that slash and burn agriculture was doing to the forests and to teach forms of sustainable agriculture instead.
Some warned him to stay in the classroom. “They criticized me saying I was a teacher not an activist,” he said. Ngongo responded by setting up in 1994 a conservation group called OCEAN, the acronym for the name in French, the Organisation Concertee des Ecologistes et Amis de la Nature.
Three years later the war came to Kisangani. Ahead of an advancing army of vengeful Rwandan Tutsis came hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees and soldiers fleeing for their lives, a shuffling city’s worth of people marching through the forest and living off whatever they could find.
Recognising the link between Congo’s cycles of war and the exploitation of its wealth of natural resources Ngongo began to study the connections. His groundbreaking research during the war years brought him international attention.
When the war receded from Kisangani the destruction of the forest only accelerated as logging companies rushed in taking advantage of the new stability. “Before there wasn’t a lot of deforestation [but] when the peace came the situation got worse,” Ngongo recalled.
Saving Congo’s 133 million hectare forest — smaller only than the Amazon it is often referred to as the world’s second lung for its ability to absorb and trap greenhouse gases — has become his life’s aim. Since 2008 Ngongo has worked for Greenpeace as a political advisor in Congo.
His focus is on trying to protect both the forests and the people that rely on them.
“For the people who live there the forest is a supermarket, it’s where they get their food, their wood to cook, their medicine. It’s where their ancestors live. It is everything to them, it is their life,” Ngongo said.
The next day Ngongo took us into the forest to see the destruction. After driving for a couple of hours past villages and military checkpoints we reached a muddy track that had been all but eaten up by the greenness pressing in from either side.
When the 4x4 got stuck in thick, sucking mud we walked until we came to a 75-acre clearing where we found a man called Hussein Moussa hard at work chopping down trees.
From time to time the thundering boom and crash of a falling tree would shatter the bucolic soundscape of singing birds and calling monkeys as Moussa and his colleagues and their chainsaw felled another century old tree in just 20 minutes.
“Every time a tree falls it is life that disappears,” Ngongo said.
An initiative that may halt the destruction is REDD, Reducing Emission from Deforestation and forest Degradation, which is high on the agenda at the current climate change talks in Copenhagen which Ngongo is attending.
The basic idea is for rich polluting countries to pay poor forested ones not to chop down their trees. But with the figures being discussed running into the tens of billions of dollars a year there are fears that corruption and poor management will stymie good intentions.
In Congo, an uncontrollably large country where corruption is rife, Ngongo fears that funds may not reach the communities in the forests or, worse still, government officials in the cities may simply pocket the cash while doing nothing to ensure that deforestation is halted.
“The problem is there isn’t an administration that can control this exploitation,” he said.
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