New Conservation Groups Formed at World Wilderness Congress

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, October 10, 2005 (ENS) - The 8th World Wilderness Congress, held in Anchorage last week, has generated cooperation and funding to safeguard wild lands, wild species and human beings in Africa and around the world. This 8th Congress attracted 1,200 delegates and spotlighted the role of indigenous peoples in protecting wilderness.

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Forest clearing, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo courtesy USAID)
The conference ended Thursday on a high note with the annoucement of the creation of the Bonobo Peace Forest in the Congo Basin rainforest. Designed to protect the smallest of the endangered great apes, the bonobo, the Peace Forest will be a linked constellation of community managed forest reserves and sustainable development zones.

"It is often in places around the world where native people still control their lands that we find some of the largest areas of untouched wilderness," said Albert Lokasola, an indigenous conservation advocate from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and spokesperson at the Congress.

"The core anchor zones of the Bonobo Peace Forest are places where the local people are working to protect their cultural values, their forests and the species within those forests - especially the bonobos, who our ancestors have respected for many generations," said Lokasola, whose indigenous organization, Vie Sauvage, is a leading partner in this initiative.

Spearheaded by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC and Kinshasa, DRC, the Bonobo Peace Forest includes conservation agreements with local communities and concessionaires covering over 20,000 square kilometers (five million acres) of bonobo habitat, in one of the largest blocks of contiguous rainforest left on Earth.

"We have been working on the ground in the Congo for several years, developing the Bonobo Peace Forest vision and implementing programs to raise awareness and facilitate protection of bonobos, as well as the rainforest they share with indigenous Congolese people," said Sally Jewell Coxe, co-founder and president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

Coxe

Sally Jewell Coxe, co-founder and president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, holds a baby bonobo rescued from bushmeat hunters who had killed his parents and hoped to sell the baby as a pet. (Photo courtesy Bonobo Conservation Initiative)
"Now we are seeing very exciting tangible results benefiting bonobos and local communities, while at the same time protecting a vast area of rainforest, vital to the whole planet."

Genetically close to humans, the little known bonobo lives only in the deep rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Compared to other endangered great apes, bonobos have received the least funding and attention.

DRC President Joseph Kabila has personally endorsed the Bonobo Peace Forest and has been supportive of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative since 2001. "The President is dedicated to environmental protection and wise natural resource management, which is also the key to lasting peace," said Mulegwa Zihindula, advisor to President Kabila.

"Our country is just recovering from a war, fought over natural resources, which took the lives of 3.5 million people, more than any war since WWII. The Bonobo Peace Forest, created with the indigenous people of the Congo, is a new model for conservation and sustainable development that we believe will work," Zihindula said.

"These peaceful, intelligent bonobos are a very special treasure for DRC and all humanity," said Zihindula. "We need to protect them, and we might learn some valuable lessons from them too, about how to live in cooperation and harmony with each other."

BCI and Vie Sauvage are receiving assistance for their work from Conservation International, the Global Conservation Fund, the Great Ape Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and USAID; the group is seeking further aid for this project.

"It is appropriate that the announcement of the Bonobo Peace Forest was made at the 8th WWC, especially as this Congress has highlighted indigenous involvement in conservation and wilderness area protection," said Vance Martin, president of The WILD Foundation, organizer of the conference.

The 8th WWC hosted more than 1,200 delegates from around the world including 30 indigenous groups from Asia, Africa and South America who came together for the first time to share their experiences of protecting their lands.

At the Congress, native people from 25 nations formed the Native Lands and Wilderness Council and set initial goals for the group. The Council passed a resolution to continue meeting and will produce a handbook aimed at tribal communities from around the world.

"The purpose of the Native Lands and Wilderness Council is to form an indigenous use and management of wildlands and to demonstrate unequivocally that we are an important part of conserving wildlands globally," said Terry Tanner, work project coordinator with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe in Montana.

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Terry Tanner, work project coordinator with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe in Montana (Photo courtesy WILD)
Tanner co-chairs the Council with Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Deh Cho First Nations Conservation Initiatives in Canada, and Larry Merculieff, deputy director of the Alaska Native Science Commission in Anchorage and coordinator of the Bering Sea Council of Elders.

Members of the Council presented case studies at the Congress from Brazil, Columbia, Mozambique, Mexico, Australia, Canada, and the United States that illustrated how Native communities are self-managing their wildland territories for wilderness protection while meeting the cultural, spiritual and economic needs of their local communities.

The Native Lands and Wilderness Council plans to assemble and distribute a handbook that clarifies reasons why tribal communities manage their own wildlands, the management techniques they use, and the benefits they derive from wildlands management. The handbook will be distributed to tribal communities and decisionmakers worldwide.

New funding for proactive global wildlands initiatives was announced at the 8th World Wilderness Congress. The WILD Foundation and cement giant CEMEX announced the first funding for the Wild Planet Fund, the funding mechanism for the Wild Planet Project. The project’s goal is to integrate new data on the benefits of wilderness conservation into a concise and compelling case for decision makers.

"We need to quantify the benefits of intact wilderness with respect to economic values," said Cyril Kormos, vice president of policy for The WILD Foundation and head of the Wild Planet Project.

"Most people think that the environmental community is too recreation focused, at the expense of local communities and indigenous groups, and that wilderness is separate from and less of a priority than sustainable development," said Kormos.

The Wild Planet Project will oversee and disseminate state-of-the-art information on mapping and managing wilderness to key policymakers, with a goal of protecting and sustaining wilderness areas and showing the social and ecological benefits of doing so.

CEMEX, one of the world’s largest cement companies, based in Mexico, has launched the WPF through an initial financial commitment of $60,000 for Phase One of the project.

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Wilderness spaces are shrinking as humans develop the wild environment. This endangered cheetah lives on a private game reserve in South Africa. (Photo courtesy Samara Game Reserve)
At the same time, the Global Environmental Fund, associated with the World Bank has endorsed the initiative as "important in the protection of biodiversity, especially in tropical countries and key desert habitats." Further funding support is likely from both the corporate and private foundation sectors.

The WILD Foundation is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization founded in the United States in 1974 by South African Ian Player, and based in Ojai, California. Established by WILD in 1977, the World Wilderness Congress is the world’s longest running, public environmental forum.

WILD works around the world to protect highly threatened wilderness areas and wildlife, with a field project focus in Sub-Saharan Africa.

An another announcement at the World Wilderness Congress, the Wilderness Foundation of South Africa, working with HOPE Worldwide and other partners, debuted a new initiative to assist young people who are orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic across Africa, and help the environment at the same time.

As of August 2005, more than 800,000 children have been orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Many young people are being forced to be heads of households at a young age, and need to find good employment.

The initiative, called Umzi Wethu, will give orphaned young people housing, training and jobs in the ecotourism, hospitality and other industries.

"We realize that wilderness is a force for social change, and that this project can offer a safe and supportive environment to invest in young people in a way that is crucial to entire family systems," said Andrew Muir, executive director of the Wilderness Foundation, South Africa.

Muir and Shiburi

The Wilderness Foundation South Africa's Executive Director Andrew Muir (left) and Board member Fanyana Shiburi share a smile at the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage. (Photo by Guy Rogers, The Herald, South Africa)
An Umzi Wethu Training Center will combine mentoring with the transformative power of wild areas. Young people will be trained in life skills, hospitality and conservation skills for a minimum of one year, in a mix of wild environments and a home campus. They will then spend a year as interns in a private game reserve or national park, before placement in secure jobs.

The project creates a bridge beyond existing orphan support lines, introducing a strong underlying environmental ethic. Based in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, Umzi Wethu hopes to expand across Africa. The first participants, ages 16 to 18, will begin in March 2006.

"South Africa is a conservation leader and celebrates 10 years of democracy," said Muir. "But beneath this success grows social devastation of proportions that could overwhelm South Africa’s capability to sustain its achievements. It is our hope that Umzi Wethu will change the destiny of teenagers from a life of poverty and possibly crime to economic advancement and possible social leadership that embraces environmental values."

Another new group was launched at the World Wilderness Congress by 40 of the world’s finest conservation photographers. The International League of Conservation Photographers intends to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography and will work on global campaigns to highlight current issues.

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Red squirrel looks out over Alaska's Denali National Park. (Photo courtesy NPS)
In conjunction with the Congress, more than 150 nature photographers gathered in Anchorage to find ways that photographers can contribute to the conservation community's efforts in protecting wilderness areas and endangered species around the world.

The First Conservation Photography Symposium opened with visual presentations by top names in the profession like Robert Glenn Ketchum, Art Wolfe, Gary Braasch and David Doubilet, who discussed topics ranging from ecological and social issues, such as global warming to cultures at the edge of extinction and the illegal trade in wildlife.

Over four days, the photographers discussed ways in which images can further contribute to the conservation agenda and presented resolutions on conservation photography to the 8th World Wilderness Congress.

The International League of Conservation Photographers will initially be a part of the WILD Foundation, the organization that initiated the idea of a league and invited conservation photographers to be a part of the Congress.

The World Wilderness Congress has catalyzed breakthroughs in science, policy, fundraising and capacity building and has inspired the formation of wilderness conservation nongovernmental organizations around the world. The time and location of the 9th World Wilderness Congress has yet to be determined.