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Frontline stories: protecting biodiversity

Ahead of COP26, the climate change summit in Glasgow in November 2021, Richard Davies talked to Dr Jane Goodall DBE, one of the world’s leading environmentalists, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

RD: Your projects often rely on individuals taking action. But events like COP26 are about government policies and they can leave people feeling like their choices have little impact. What can we do to convince people?


Well, that is basically what I do all around the world. Of course, if it is just one individual, it makes no difference. But once you get millions of people making ethical choices about what they buy and what they wear, asking where it came from and whether it harmed the environment: that makes a difference. We work particularly with youth groups, like our organisation Roots & Shoots. They then influence their parents and grandparents.

And then there is consumer pressure. I was talking to the chief executive of a large company last week. They are taking major steps to go carbon-neutral in two years’ time. They see the writing on the wall: the natural resources that companies use won’t go on forever. But it was also because of consumer pressure: when people demand that the product be made ethically, then companies either go under or they make the necessary changes.

RD: So businesses will react if you can convince shoppers. Is it better to appeal to empathy – concern about others, the environment and the animal kingdom, say – or self-interest?


To change an individual’s way of thinking, it is no good arguing. Yes, there are certain facts that you can present. On water, for example: levels are dropping and that is a fact, people should listen to this. But for the most part, you need to reach the heart. I reach the heart by telling stories – stories of things that I have seen. This is the way that we create change. It is useless pointing your finger, shouting and getting angry. That either makes the person – if they are a high-up politician – pay lip service just to get rid of you; or they feel angry and think ‘I’m not going to be dictated to’.

Figure 1: Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania

Source: ECO team

RD: You’ve spent a career in places where deforestation is a problem. This is often seen as both a cause of poverty and a consequence of it. What is the best solution?


I realised in 1986 that chimpanzees and forests were disappearing across Africa. I flew over the tiny Gombe National Park in Tanzania – where our chimp research is in its 61st year. In the 1960s, it was part of this great equatorial forest belt, but by the 1980s, it was a tiny oasis of forest surrounded by bare hills. There were more people living there than the land could support; the land was over-farmed and infertile. They were cutting down the trees in order to survive, to grow more food to feed their families or to get some money from charcoal or timber. So we began our ‘Take Care’ programme (TACARE) in the 12 villages around Gombe.

It ranges from restoring and regenerating hills without the use of fertiliser, and with water management, to health and education, and family planning information. The people become partners in conservation, using smartphones to monitor the health of their forest reserves. But yes, an awful lot of deforestation is due to poverty.

RD: The area where you mention forest loss equatorial Africa is vast. And its countries have had a hugely diverse experience since 1960. Those in the east have grown; those in the west are among the worst performing economies on the planet. Do initiatives like yours require that the economy strengthens over time?


We work in both Congos, Guinea, Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda.

RD: Can I ask you about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) then? How does sustainability work in a country where GDP has declined so drastically? [GDP is down 60% since 1960.]


We work in the very far east of the DRC. It is volatile due to the mineral wealth. But we run the same programme, and we find there isn’t any difference. The people are the same on both sides of the lake. If you go to Dar es Salaam on the one hand and Kinshasa on the other, there is obviously a difference. But we are not working at the political level, we are trying to keep the illegal mining out of areas where we work. But the good news is that in both Tanzania and the DRC, we have had ministers of environment that have been part of Roots & Shoots as young people. They are tough, they have stood up.

Figure 2: East versus West

RD: Political interest in the environment tends to ebb and flow. This autumn it is on everyone’s agenda. How hopeful are you that this will lead to concrete action? Or are these big get-togethers just a photo opportunity?


Unfortunately in the past, many of these big meetings have been ‘talk, talk, talk’ with little follow-up action. Like the Paris Agreement: it was wonderful to have everyone agreeing to a certain level of emissions control, but I don’t think a single country lived up to its promise because there is no enforcement of these regulations. But climate change is now hitting the wealthy countries, not just places like Bangladesh. The recent hurricanes and flooding in New York have been a wake-up call to everyone. The Western countries are waking up and taking notice. I am just praying that COP26 will find some way in which the commitments made by countries are followed through. It is encouraging that young people are so vocal. They are so much better informed now and are concerned about their future – and this concern rubs off.

RD: You are a COP26 Advocate. What is at the top of the list of your policy priorities? What should we see to hold politicians to account for?


It is very difficult: there are so many things. We need to consider both the pandemic and the loss of biodiversity – and these are interrelated in that they are all due to our disrespect for the natural world and for animals. We caused these conditions that made it relatively easy for there to be a spillover from animals to humans, including in our factory farms. I would want to ban industrial farming. Because it is destroying the land, it is harming people, it is devastating for biodiversity and it is killing the soil, and we depend on the soil. The environmental impact is devastating – all the animals being fed, with fossil fuels used to get the grain to them, then the animals to the slaughter and the meat to the table. Water is wasted and in some countries, it is getting scarce. And the animals create a lot of methane, a bad greenhouse gas. We need smaller farms, permaculture and agro-forestry.

We have launched a new programme recently: Trees for Jane. It is about responsible planting of trees and protection of existing forests. You can donate to people planting trees or to the indigenous groups protecting forests. Everybody can get involved – everybody can plant a tree. It isn’t the solution to climate change, but it is a solution. I love the Chinese proverb that says: the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now. Planting the right tree is the key and that is what the programme is emphasising.

RD: I saw what the locals called ‘The Curse of Teak’ when researching my book in Panama: the government subsidised tree planting but didn’t specify what should be planted. [Teak is a non-native species and kills plants and insects around it due to acid in its leaves]. Below the teak trees is ghostly dead ground.


I’ve seen the degradation in Panama – it is terrible. And the same in Argentina from the cattle grazing. What was rainforest becomes forest, becomes scrubland, becomes desert. The cattle will eat the young trees. And goats are even worse: they will eat anything. I never say people must become vegan, but we should move towards a plant-based diet.

RD: Thank you for your time and I hope you now get a break from dreaded Zoom calls. At least it means people are not flying as much.


Yes, but there is twice the work. There is no break. No Saturday, no Sunday, no Christmas, no birthday. It is relentless! But it does mean we can reach millions more people. We started JGI (the Jane Goodall Institute) and Roots & Shoots in India during the pandemic, and in Turkey.

RD: So there is an upside to the change in our use of technology in the past couple of years?


Yes. I couldn’t have done all this, no way. More and more companies are switching to video calls. Some face-to-face meetings are important of course. You have fun and you have side conversations. In fact those side conversations are the only good thing about these big meetings I think. The people you meet, that is more important than all these boring lectures and pontificating politicians [laughs]. ‘Pontificating politicians’: that sounds quite good doesn’t it?

This interview is also available in the digital copy of the second issue of ECO magazine, which you can find here.
Picture by richcarey on iStock
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