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Of Bonobos and Men/Empty Hands, Open Arms

Of Bonobos and Men
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We are honored to be profiled by author Deni Béchard in his book Of Bonobos and Men: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo (also available in French under the title Des bonobos et des Hommes and published in hardcover as Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral). This poignant, illuminating work chronicles Béchard’s travels through the Congo with the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

“Béchard’s riveting journey through the ‘dark continent’ provides a surprisingly uplifting story about a radically different and successful conservation program,” writes David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature. Read more praise for Empty Hands, Open Arms.

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Weaving together environmental, political, historical, and anthropological narratives, Béchard captures the challenging context in which BCI’s founder Sally Jewell Coxe, Executive Director Michael Hurley, and their team have worked for many years. He chronicles how, despite overwhelming obstacles, BCI’s inclusive and participatory approach to conservation has achieved remarkable success. BCI has worked with local leaders to develop the Bonobo Peace Forest, an integrated network of nature reserves that are managed by local communities and supported by sustainable development.

Many are praising Empty Hands, Open Arms, including Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Coles writes, “Here is the matter of conservation given profound explanation—a searching and knowing consideration that enables an important social and political and cultural struggle in Africa to become a needed lesson for us who live elsewhere to ponder, take to heart.”

To learn more about Deni and his book, please watch the video below and read the exclusive interview.

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.

Praise for Empty Hands, Open Arms

Here is the matter of conservation given profound explanation—a searching and knowing consideration that enables an important social and political and cultural struggle in Africa to become a needed lesson for us who live elsewhere to ponder, take to heart.

Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, MacArthur Fellow, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Béchard offers us an inspired, poignant and seriously researched look at a subject of profound importance, the protection of bonobos and of the rainforest. He reveals the crucial role that local indigenous knowledge and traditions can play in addressing what is truly the greatest threat to humanity: the degradation and destruction of our ecosystems. In a story at once captivating and shocking, he shows us that Western scientific experts do not have all of the answers and cannot simply impose programs developed in the US and Europe, but that committed, visionary individuals who are ready to make sacrifices and listen to the voices of the forest can also have a profound and lasting impact.

Wade Davis, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and author of The Serpent and the Rainbow, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, and Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest

We are about to lose one of our closest cousins, like us a primate. How many more cousins can we afford to lose before we are alone? And when we’re alone will we still be human—or a diminished animal ourselves? This dramatic account of heroic conservation efforts to save the bonobo, “our closest living relative alongside the chimpanzee,” is at once riveting, emotional, historical, and scientific, full of vignettes that disclose human and animal conflicts, sexuality, political and economic realities, psychological insight, and compassion. Into the Congo, this adventure reveals not a heart of darkness but a rich world of light, shade, and imperiled life, a connection between the human and the great circle of being, on whose circumference near us sits—if we help it—the bonobo, and the great rain forest it inhabits.

James Engell, Editor of Environment, An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Yale University Press, 2008) and Faculty Associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment

We have poured billions into campaigns to protect iconic or charismatic species from extinction. As human numbers and economic demands continue to climb, we are well into a sixth great extinction episode and thus the conservation efforts become all the more urgent. Nevertheless, money and human resources to protect nature pale beside the economic muscle-power of corporations and so conservation ventures must be more nimble, adaptable and efficient. Deni Béchard’s riveting journey through the “dark continent” provides a surprisingly uplifting story about a radically different and successful conservation program.

David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature

Reading Empty Hands, Open Arms brought me nearly to tears of despair for the desperate, desperate situation of bonobos, the world’s most endearing and endangered great apes–and then again to tears of joyful admiration for the brave and smart people working to save them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Buy this book, and you will discover a seed of hope in our time’s garden of despair.

Dale Peterson, author of The Moral Lives of Animals and Jane Goodall: the Woman who Redefined Man

Empty Hands, Open Arms offers us a vision of a truly non-colonial approach to conservation, one that respects both the rights and knowledge of local people, and engages with them as equal partners in conservation. As we work toward the UN Millennium Development Goal of ensuring environmental sustainability, this book has much to teach us about how we can save the earth’s wildlife and rainforests.

Philip Bonn, Director-General of World of Hope International, Special Consultative Status to United Nations ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council)

Deni Béchard in Empty Hands, Open Arms has accomplished no less than a tour de force in recounting the improbable and inspiring efforts of a small non-governmental group, the Bonobo Conservation initiative, that together with local indigenous leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is working to save one of the world’s most important rainforests and the living creature genetically closest to humankind, the bonobo. With literary flair, he offers a gripping account of the complicated and war-torn historical, political, and social context of conservation efforts in one of the most challenging places on earth—and makes a convincing case for hope. It is a story that movingly illuminates the time we live in, a tale of an emblematic struggle in which the fate of all of us and our future on this planet are at stake.

Bruce Rich, Visiting Scholar, Environmental Law Institute, Washington DC, and author of Mortgaging the Earth: The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development, and To Uphold the World: The Message of Ashoka and Kautilya for the 21st Century

Empty Hands, Open Arms is an emotionally-enthralling, nuanced voyage into the conundrums of bonobo conservation. Béchard evokes both the eye-popping culture of these peaceful great-apes and the inspiring community-conservationists collaborating in their survival. I highly recommend this absorbing, well-researched, and compassionate book to both environmentalists and general readers.

William Powers, author of Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge

“People are at once the problem and the solution,” says Sally Jewell Coxe, founder of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, and Deni Béchard’s masterful and moving history of BCI bears this out. In BCI, Béchard finds a brilliant example of how conservationists can work with communities to save not only their own immediate environments but also the world at large through courage, cooperation and compassion.

Grant Hayter-Menzies, author of Imperial Masquerade and Shadow Woman

Readers of this book will be entertained and moved by Deni Béchard’s stories about this remarkable endangered and irreplaceable species and those dedicating their lives to saving them. On top of this, they will be informed and enlightened about the Congo, its lush forests, its tragic history, and its peoples’ struggle to build a sustainable future.

Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, Sacred Pleasure, and The Real Wealth of Nations

Deni Béchard’s Empty Hands, Open Arms is the embodiment of the type of reporting that we dream of reading, but all too rarely encounter—intelligent, engaged, and above all, astonishingly perceptive. Here is a portrait of a nation and the conservationists trying to protect it, rendered with all the necessary complexity to make this book joyously alive.

Dinaw Mengestu, MacArthur Fellow and author of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air

In this compelling and inspirational account, Béchard chronicles the visionary work being done to protect the bonobo and the world’s second largest rainforest—the “left lung” of the planet that produces much of the oxygen needed to sustain life on Earth.

Chip Comins, Founder, Chairman & CEO, American Renewable Energy Institute

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