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?
Ange during a field visit in San Francisco during the Environmental leadership program at UC Berkeley in 2017
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.
Role play during advocacy school in DRC, May 2017
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.