By: Lucas Meers, Program Officer for Okapi Conservation Project
When you tell someone you’re traveling to the Congo, you get a certain reaction. Raised eyebrows, dropped jaws or even a “Wow, you’re brave!” Perhaps it’s because there is a certain perception or stigma with the persistent political strife in the country, or perhaps it’s because of the extreme remote locale requiring multiple days and many legs of travel to get there. Whatever the case, tourists rarely visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it always sparks a conversation.
I was making my first trip to visit the project headquarters and meet the staff since I became the Program Officer of OCP almost a year ago. I was traveling with John Lukas, who started the project 30 years ago and has made the trip to Epulu over 100 times so I felt I had little to fear.
After two days of flying, we boarded the last of our seven flights to Epulu, a remote village that was once a Belgian resort in the middle of the rainforest in the heart of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, and where the Okapi Conservation Project is based. Departing from Jacksonville International Airport, the planes got smaller and smaller as we neared our final destination, near the exact center of the continent of Africa, hidden in the dense tropical rainforest.
On the first day in Epulu, we traversed into the rainforest to deploy several camera traps to document wildlife in the area, but not without first asking permission from the local chief to access his land. Once he gave the approval, we entered into the forest escorted by our Mbuti Pygmy guide and four armed rangers with the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature, or ICCN.
Though we were there during the beginning of the rainy season, the rains had yet to arrive, so the rainforest wasn’t as wet as I imagined. We searched for any signs of okapi, including dung, footprints, clay licks or freshly-nibbled leaves, which would determine where we set up the cameras. As we found significant signs, we set up each of the cameras with the hope they would catch anything interesting that walked by and snap a picture. Once we finished situating the last camera, we took the final GPS coordinates, and meandered through the dense foliage back to the lonely dirt road.
Over the next few days, there was little down time. We traveled over the rough road through the Reserve to one of our women’s group sites in the town of Mambasa. Through this program, OCP empowers women in rural communities to conserve forests by organizing women’s groups that improve food security, safeguard clean water sources from pollution and overuse, and provide alternative, income-generating opportunities to pay their children’s healthcare costs and school fees. As the women’s groups continue to grow, OCP will provide additional supplies and training to each new group to start up in exchange for their support of our ongoing conservation education programs.
As we pulled up to the building to visit the group, they greeted us in a cheerful traditional song and dance – probably the coolest thing to happen thus far during the trip. When they finished, we met with them to discuss any issues they are having, anything they need to be more successful and what we can do to assist. One of the conclusions was the need for additional sewing machines. Currently, there are four sewing machines for 35 women, so one of our objectives is to provide additional sewing machines, tables and supplies to support the expansion of the groups and recruitment of more women.
The day continued by visiting one of our agroforestry nurseries where we ‘head start’ tree seedlings for reforestation projects and distribute beans, rice and other seeds to farmers. Agroforestry is a fast-growing initiative that we can’t keep up with! With a waitlist of over 100 farmers, we are looking to expand into new areas of the Reserve. Through the program, we provide seeds to farmers to grow their food, and provide education and training on proper, natural fertilizers and crop rotation to improve crop production. By using the same, rejuvenated plot of land year after year, it lessens the amount of land they need to clear to access fertile soil, therefore lessening the impact of slash and burn agriculture. When the growing season is complete, we ask the farmers to provide a percentage of the seeds for new farmers wanting to join the program, thereby continuing the growth of the program.
The entire trip lasted 10 days ‘on the ground’ with two days’ travel on either end. I was sad to leave the people who were so welcoming upon arrival, so hospitable during our stay and excited to meet some new faces. I returned to Jacksonville with a renewed sense of the life I have here and how we take for granted the little things that would make a huge difference in the lives of people struggling to support their families on the other side of the world.