Greenpeace staff member wins alternative Nobel Prize

Feature story - 13 October, 2009
We are thrilled to announce that one of our staff members, René Ngongo, has today been named a recipient of the 2009 Right Livelihood award.

Rene Ngongo in Brussels

René Ngongo has been working closely with Greenpeace to save the Congo Basin Forests (the second largest tropical forest after the Amazon) since 2004, first in his capacity as head of OCEAN and now as Political Advisor for Greenpeace Africa when he led the opening of our first office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

His life story is an inspiring one. He grew up in Congo, near the Virunga National Park - a truly unique area with outstanding biodiversity which is included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage in Danger. It was in these forests that he started to dream about becoming a Conservationist. He studied biology in the Kinsagani University where he also worked for several years. René also founded the highly-regarded Congolese NGO "OCEAN" (Organisationconcertée des écologistes et amis de la nature), which often served asa mediator between forest communities and key stakeholders.

Protecting the Congo Forest

As part of his work to protect the Congo Basin Forest from industrial loggers, René actively developed grassroots solutions and local contacts in remote villages. This infrastructure soon became the basis for educational activities on deforestation/reforestation and general environmental awareness building. Between 1994 and 2002, René developed tools to fight "slash and burn" agriculture. Among these tools were demonstration fields in Kisangani that showed local people possible alternative agricultural techniques. These allowed to diminish the pressure on the forests and provide better income alternatives to local farmers.

René coordinated the creation of a seedling plantation (20,000 seedlings) of the most exploited tree species in the Eastern province. This plantation provided trees for several 'green city' events. During these 'green city' (Ville Verte) events, trees were planted in abandoned parks, along avenues and in schools.

Staying

The act of staying when you can leave is one of the most powerful things a person can do. During the brutal war that tore through Congo between 1996 and 2002, René didn't stop his efforts. He was one of luckier people who could have simply left the country, because of his network of friends outside Congo. Instead, he chose to stay.

He monitored the use of natural resources by the different waring groups. During one of his 'green city' tree planting events on the outskirts of Kisangani, the war between Ugandan and Rwandan troops started. René and his invited guests had to search for cover from the artillery battle that suddenly started in the neighbourhood.

Fighting against destructive logging

Today that the DRC has returned to "relative" peace, more than ever, the country's intact forests are threatened by large scale industrial projects such as logging. Despite a World Bank sponsored "reform" and a moratorium on new logging concessions that has been launched 7 years ago, companies continue to exploit the forest with impunity.

Poorly - if at all - paid and unequipped local control agents are unable to protect the massive old trees that are being logged and shipped to Europe and other international markets. But people like René continue the struggle against ecological destruction and social injustice. In his own words "Our forests are our livelihoods. They cannot be reduced to a cheap export commodity. For millions of people, the forests are their supermarket, their pharmacy, and the foundation of spiritual and physical health."

Forests are also vital for our global climate. Around 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from deforestation. In January 2009, the government concluded a legal review of 156 logging titles, and deemed 91 of them illegal. Despite this, some of the companies who have been not been validated continue logging today. Rene insists: "We have alternatives. We don't need to sell our forests for meager short term profits. We know today that our forests are worth more standing then logged, this is why we need a strong agreement and support for a global financial mechanism to reduce emissions and to end deforestation."

Alternative Nobel Prize

The Right Livelihood Award is also known as the alternative Nobel Prize. It honours those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today. Several winners are announced every year and receive the prize in early December. We are beyond happy that Rene is one of them.

René's entire work is recgonised by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation today: "Since 1994,including through the civil war from 1996-2002, René Ngongo has engaged, at great personalrisk, in popular campaigning, political advocacy and practical initiatives to confront thedestroyers of the rainforest and help create the political conditions that could halt itsdestruction and bring about its conservation and sustainable use."

Welcoming the award, Greenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold said: "While we hope President Obama turns his Nobel Peace Prize into real action for climate protection at this December's United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, it is people like Rene Ngongo who have already started the heavy lifting. People like René are the real climate leaders and it is good to know that at the very least one climate hero will be honored in Scandinavia this December."

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