Ange Asanzi joined International Rivers in 2014, initially to provide support for their river campaigns in Africa. In her role as Africa Program Associate, Ange has been following the development of several dam projects across the continent, mainly in central and west Africa. She has worked extensively with affected communities and civil society organisations (CSOs), helping them to develop training and capacity-building sessions and resources and supporting them with advocacy strategies.
We spoke to Ange to find out more about her work and the place of the Congo river in the life and culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
How did you first become interested in the protection of rivers and freshwater in Africa? Was there a specific moment or experience that made you decide that this is what you had to do?
I wouldn’t say I’ve had just one moment. I’ve had various moments which have led me to where I am today, working with International Rivers. I was always interested in conservation when I was growing up. We used to have forest excursions and river trips back when I was in primary school, so I guess it really started there. I spent a couple of years in Sierra Leone in West Africa as a child and we’d go and spend some time on the rivers, and for me those were moments that I would really enjoy and look forward to. Also, I remember as a child I had an interaction with a bonobo – a type of chimpanzee endemic to the Congo Basin. My first interaction with this bonobo was just amazing, I still remember that moment – it really left a mark on me – so it was just natural for me to get involved with river protection and with International Rivers.
In your article ‘Why I love the Congo river’, you talk about the role of the river in shaping Congolese culture and promoting unity and identity. Could you talk a little more about the place of the river in Congolese culture?
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we have 250 ethnic groups or more and it’s a society that, in my opinion, is a bit fragmented. But the Congo River is something which links these groups, as they all depend on it to a greater or lesser extent for their livelihoods. It unites all these tribal ethnic groups.
The river criss-crosses most of the country, starting from the source to Kisangani then flowing West all the way to the mouth of the river on the Atlantic coast. Then you have all these tributaries in each region flowing into the main river, so it provides unity. If it wasn’t for the Congo River, we wouldn’t be called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The river plays a central role in Congolese culture: in our food, language and music. The Congolese are known for music, right? And language itself, one of our local languages, Lingala, is spoken across the country because the river opened up movement, allowed people to move from one area to another. The river also promoted trade between different ethnic groups. Even in Congo-Brazzaville – ‘the other Congo’ – we have similar cultures because of the river and we have certain shared practices that former generations and our ancestors had. For example, we used to have a day in the week where people would just stay at home and not go into the fields, a rest day, and that was practised across many ethnic groups in the DRC as well.
The river also has a place in the spiritual life of the country, maybe not as much as it had in the past, but it definitely has a place at a spiritual level. So, these are just a few ways in which the river unites us.
How would you summarise the impact of Inga I and II dams on rural communities in the DRC, specifically those communities living near and dependent on the river itself?
In terms of Inga 1 and 2, it’s very clear to us that they have left a trail of poverty, a legacy of poverty in fact, for the communities affected by them. Some people lost their land, which of course provided their livelihood through farming, and the water quality has deteriorated since the dams were built. Communities were initially hopeful that Inga would provide a better livelihood for them, but in fact it has destroyed the lives of thousands of people. On top of that, not only has the dam failed to bring any improvements for them, they don’t even have access to any of the electricity which is produced at Inga! The majority of the electricity generated goes to Kinshasa, to other urban areas or to the mining fields in the South.
The Congo river supports an extraordinary diversity of species and habitats. How is the ecological health and diversity of the river intertwined with the wellbeing of the communities that live alongside it?
In the past in the DRC, people would not just live anywhere. For their villages, they would generally pick a place that was close to the river, either right next to it or at least within a few kilometres of it. The river was a source of clean freshwater and many thousands of people also relied on fishing, their nutrition came from fish, so the river was also the source of their livelihoods, as well as providing some medicinal plants. So, if the whole ecosystem is damaged, people have no way to get food directly from the river, but they also have no way to practise agriculture either. The traditional agricultural system was to farm near the river because it provides plenty of water and streams so you had a natural irrigation system for your crops. People depend on the river for fishing and for farming, in fact, life itself revolves around the river system, so if this system is broken or damaged, it destroys the livelihoods of all these people living in the area.
In the past, people understood that if they overexploited the river’s resources, they would suffer the impact.
They also knew that whatever they did could have an impact either downstream or upstream, because the river flows from one source to another and there are other villages either upstream or downstream. Unfortunately, this knowledge and experience generally isn’t taken into account by the people making the decisions on dams.
What is the most effective way to ensure that rural community voices are better represented in decision-making processes?
It is certainly possible to give rural communities more of a voice, but we can’t do that without the support, for example, of local civil society groups. The first step is for the communities to get involved. As civil society, but also as international organisations, we need to strive to empower the local communities, we need to bring them into the conversation and allow them to tell their own stories.
It is common across Africa that Africans have not always been able to tell their own stories. Even today, we still let the government and others tell our own stories and sometimes people are misrepresented, so we need to let them tell their own stories.
Nobody understands their own livelihoods better than the communities themselves, and we have to be part of the movement to make this happen.
I think we often have the tendency to use the bottom-up approach, even as civil society. But with big development projects this is not enough and it does not work as well. Part of our role at International Rivers is to provide a space for communities to receive training and capacity-building sessions and civil society also needs to play a part in facilitating this and allowing it to happen.
If large hydropower projects are not the solution to energy needs, what solutions should governments be looking at?
There are many solutions! For me the first and most important one is a change of mindset. There needs to be a change of mindset from the government, the financiers and from civil society – from all of us really – because there are a lot of alternatives nowadays. We have solar, we have wind and even small-scale hydro projects may be viable in some circumstances, if they have no adverse impacts (but that’s a big ‘if’).
We also need to think about decentralising the energy system, because we have this tendency to develop mega projects which involve building thousands of kilometres of transmission lines from one region to another, even if the region receiving the power has enough potential, either through solar or something else, to produce energy locally at a competitive price.
The current system is not helping people. About 50% of Africans have no access to electricity and the rate is even higher for sub-Saharan Africa.
Technology is evolving every single day, and there is a range of new developments, such as a recent technology that promotes battery life for grid stations etc. So, all these technologies are evolving and we need to look at these alternatives and invest in them, as well as invest in youth, to train engineers and invest in people who will help to move this forward.
Are there examples in the DRC where those alternative forms of energy generation have been successful?
In DRC, not so much. There are some small projects, but perhaps none that have yet been very successful. But, looking at other countries, Tanzania is a great example of a decentralised energy system that has worked for communities.
What are some of the most persistent challenges that you face in your work, both professional and personal?
Professionally, the difference in ideology with some of the people I interact or engage with, especially at the government level. They always have this tendency to label people who work for international organisations and sometimes it’s a challenge to get such people on board – they think that we are all ‘anti-development’ and that we don’t want Africa to develop. It’s challenging to convince these people that big dams are not the solution for Africa, for so many reasons, and to convince people that we don’t have to exploit our natural resources for energy. There are so many alternatives we can use to generate energy, but there’s no alternative to water! If we don’t have water, then we don’t have life.
From a personal perspective, well, naturally I’m quite a reserved person and I’ve grown a lot in that respect during this work. River protection is what attracted me to work for International Rivers, so obviously when I joined I was already a lover of rivers and of forests and nature generally: but I wasn’t yet an activist.
I have had to come out of my shell, and it has been an amazing journey because I’ve grown a lot and I’m now able to take a radical stand, not only because of International Rivers, or because someone has told me to, but because of what I have seen and experienced for myself.
This has allowed me to see things from different angles and has allowed me to stand for what I believe in, no matter how great the obstacles.
What gives you hope for freshwater conservation in Africa?
A lot! I see the movement is growing every single day. For instance, during the recent day of action for International Rivers we had partners across the continent celebrating the day and raising awareness. The movement might not be as advanced as it is in Latin America or in Southeast Asia, but I think that’s because – in terms of hydropower projects – over there they have had to fight against so many of these projects over many decades.
But there is a rising movement in Africa, of young people especially, who want to have healthy rivers, and who understand how rivers support life. I really believe that this movement will grow further and expand across cities and across countries.
As an example, people are currently fighting to gain legal protection for the Ethiope river in Nigeria – just that fact alone gives me hope that this movement can grow and grow and grow!
What can you learn from the more developed movements in Latin America and Asia? Are there elements of the strategies they use which can inform International Rivers’ work in Africa?
Well, because International Rivers is international, we have staff working in Latin America who have tremendous experience of river protection, so we do have these knowledge exchanges. We’ve also had meetings where we bring people from different regions together. We have a lot to learn from Latin America because they’ve opposed dams for many years, so they can help in terms of strategies and help us learn how to effectively oppose damaging projects. If a dam is built, the impacts are often very similar, so we can learn a lot from them.
Are there particular challenges in sub-Saharan Africa that are quite context specific and may be different to or more acute than those faced in other parts of the world?
Yes, there are. Poverty is obviously a huge issue in sub-Saharan Africa, as is the presence of repressive governments and repressive states. We have undemocratic countries where, if you speak up, it can cause huge problems for you. Of course, you might have similar issues in other places, but I think in Africa it’s more common to have repressive states and very high levels of extreme poverty. But it’s not all bad news: in terms of literacy rates, we are getting better as a continent.
I guess those two factors – the extreme poverty combined with often repressive regimes – are in a sense a perfect recipe for those massive development projects. It must be hard to resist the ‘development’ argument in that kind of context?
Yes, it’s very difficult, because when a development project is planned, it becomes known as ‘belonging’ to the government or a particular president, so sometimes we are criticised for opposing a government project. It is seen as challenging the authority of a particular government or president and that does not go down well with some people. That’s a problem from the beginning.
Given the difficulties and challenges you have talked about, how important is collaboration and how do you think it can be effective?
Well, collaboration is very important, I would describe it almost like an ecosystem. We need each other, we can’t do this work without our partners in the DRC, they can’t do their work without the communities – we all need each other. And it’s not only collaboration at the local and national level but also among international actors. We don’t have the expertise to do everything, we don’t always have a team of lawyers, or scientists or freshwater specialists working for International Rivers – so we need to collaborate with different people on various levels, with the academic community for example, or also at government level. We need to work with governments who are willing to work with us, who are willing to be challenged and adopt alternatives. It needs a lot of collaboration with actors in the human rights field and education as well – education is very important in this fight for freshwater.
We really need to raise awareness and educate people about the importance of rivers and freshwater generally and why we should fight to protect river ecosystems, and we cannot do this alone.
What do you consider to be the role of groups like Synchronicity Earth in helping to advance freshwater conservation in the Congo Basin?
Synchronicity Earth has played a very significant role in our work in the Congo. I remember when I joined International Rivers in 2014, that was when we got support from Synchronicity Earth to start our work in the DRC. That support was a cornerstone for us: it has played a huge role in the development of our work today. It has not only helped to facilitate the work that our organisation can do to protect natural resources such as rivers, but I think Synchronicity Earth also supports our work not just financially, but with what you are doing now, helping us to raise awareness of the issues we are working on.