Award-winning author Deni Béchard features BCI in his illuminating new book. Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral covers how BCI’s model of locally-led conservation offers real hope for the bonobos, the Congo rainforest, and the people who rely on the forest for survival. To learn more about Deni and his book, please watch the video below and read the exclusive interview.
Empty Hands, Open Arms will be available to the general public in October, but you don’t have to wait! Thanks to the generosity of Deni Béchard and Milkweed Press, BCI has secured 20 copies for advance release. With a donation of $100 or more, you will receive an advance hardback edition signed by the author and by BCI Founder and President Sally Jewell Coxe. Quantities are limited, so please act quickly to guarantee your copy of this wonderful new book.
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Interview with Deni Béchard
BCI: What inspired you to write the book?
Deni Béchard: A sense of urgency around environmental and conservation issues. I’d read enough articles and books telling me that we are doomed, so I began looking for people whose work might offer us solutions and paths forward. Through writing, I wanted to expand people’s awareness of the ways that we can address environmental issues.
BCI: How did you find BCI?
DB: I was asking everyone I knew about conservation and environmental stories that they thought deserved to be written. A friend mentioned BCI to me, and after I spent several months researching their work, I became convinced that I should write about it.
BCI: How is BCI’s model different?
DB: BCI’s members make an important distinction—that poverty does not equate to ignorance. This is a distinction that we often fail to make in the US. Many conservationists go to Africa thinking that they know better, and they try to implement plans and leadership strategies devised in Washington, DC. BCI develops conservation strategies based on what its people learn in the field. They clearly communicate to the people who live in areas important for conservation that BCI wants to learn from them and support them to become conservationists. This exchange builds trust and social capital, so that people in community conservation areas feel invested in projects and are willing to support BCI through difficult periods. BCI also emphasizes building local leadership. Many NGOs will hire Congolese leaders, but the Congo is a big country, and the people don’t want to be led by Congolese from another province or from Kinshasa. BCI aims to develop leaders who were born and raised in the areas where conservation is being done. By investing in communities and clearly communicating with them, BCI has created a self-replicating model. It inspires leaders from nearby communities to establish new conservation areas. The people increasingly see the forests and wildlife not as resources to be exploited, but as investments for the future of their communities.
BCI: What do you hope this book will accomplish?
DB: I had a number of goals with this book. I wrote it as a journey and in many ways as a travelogue that follows not just my physical journey to the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve but also my process of trying to understand the country, the people, the bonobos, and conservation in general. I wanted to show readers not only the reality of that journey and that country—the actual challenges of work in a place like the Congo—but also our preconceptions both of how people there think and of how conservation should be done. I wanted to surprise the readers with the stories of the Congolese conservationists, with their motivations and their ways of seeing conservation and the world in general. If there’s a message, it’s that for conservation to work, the people involved with it need a deep, organic sense of the country where they find themselves, as well as a great deal of humility. We can’t import solutions to problems; rather, we have to get to the root of the problems in those countries, and that takes time and patience, and a willingness to learn. Ultimately, my goal is to inspire people to get involved in conservation and take more active roles in learning from others and looking for solutions.
BCI: Did anything surprise you as you researched the book?
DB: A list of everything that surprised me would be as long as the book. Many of my surprises had to do with my assumptions. I was constantly surprised to see situations from new points of view and to realize how ignorant I was. Also, one thing that I haven’t addressed in the earlier questions—and that I could have—was my surprise at how much bonobos and the other great apes in general have to teach us about ourselves. Researching and seeing bonobos helped me see myself more objectively. They made me reconsider my assumptions about what it means to be human, as well as how and why we interact the way we do. I spent a great deal of time thinking about evolution and the circumstances that incite creatures to change. As the human population races toward nine billion, we are at a point when we are desperately in need of change, and thinking about how other apes evolved has allowed me to rethink how we can actively participate in the process of change rather than just waiting for it to be forced upon us by hardship and crisis.
BCI: What has given you the most hope about the future of conservation?
DB: The enthusiasm of the Congolese. The Congolese are passionate and knowledgeable about their forests and wildlife, and with support, they are ready to work hard to protect it. I also believe that many of us have forgotten human endurance and our capacity for work and leadership. It is inspiring to see people who are harnessing that strength year after year, regardless of the challenges they face.