A message from Dr. Tara Stoinski, president and CEO/chief scientist, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
As a conservationist and scientist, I’ve been closely following the national discussions and controversies regarding proposed policy changes and budgetary cuts to climate change research, environmental protection and the Endangered Species Act. Recently, President Trump signed an executive order to curb rules and enforcement of clean water protection and roll back efforts to mitigate climate change. The justification for these actions seems to be putting American jobs first, as if this is an A or B scenario where investing in one negates the other. This is a false narrative and is misleading. There are many case studies demonstrating how protecting natural resources with sustainable industries has positive outcomes economically and environmentally.
I lead the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International’s work in Rwanda to save the critically endangered mountain gorillas and have seen firsthand how economies and people can thrive when their government invests in protecting their environment and natural resources. Twenty-three years ago Rwanda suffered a horrific genocide, which devastated the country and left an economy that needed to be completely rebuilt.
A critically important part of Rwanda’s recovery involved investing in eco-tourism and natural resources, including protecting mountain gorillas and their habitat for future generations. In a country where land is at an utmost premium — Rwanda has one of the highest human population densities in all of Africa — the government has set aside more than 10% of country for national parks. In addition, the government has established a revenue sharing program whereby communities receive a portion of the funds raised through the sale of permits to see the gorillas to address critical needs, such as building schools or health clinics.
Rwanda’s commitment to protecting their natural resources and wildlife has allowed the country’s tourism to flourish, creating jobs and setting the stage for mountain gorillas to recover from the brink of extinction. In the last 30 years, its population has doubled from ~240 to 480 individuals and it is the only great ape that is actually increasing in number. This is a direct testament to the government and community commitment to protecting this important species and the forests they need to thrive.
Valuing Industry Over Environmental Protection Doesn’t Work
We’ve also seen what happens when a government puts greater value on industry than on ecosystems. Indonesia’s unsustainable investment in palm oil production has caused massive environmental degradation. These practices have had significant effects on local human communities, including health issues and economic losses, and have devastated wildlife populations, including critically endangered Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. Both species are estimated to experience an 80% decline in their population numbers by the middle of this century, and Sumatran orangutans, along with the Grauer’s gorillas of eastern Congo, are considered among the 25 most endangered primates in the world. Given that much of the remaining orangutan habitat is concessioned for further timber and palm oil exploitation, the outlook for Asia’s only great ape species is not a good one. Indonesia risks depleting all of their natural resources and making their land uninhabitable by people or wildlife, inevitably hurting their economy and their communities in the long run.
Taking Action in a Time of Uncertainty
As our elected officials discuss and decide what value we should put on environment, it is important for Americans to understand the consequences of decisions to de-value our natural resources — the health of the water we drink, the air we breathe, the land that grows our food, the wetlands and forests that provide protection and sustenance for our communities and wildlife.
I have seen firsthand from working in Rwanda how critical it is for the national government to support protection of the environment not only for the preservation of critically endangered mountain gorillas, but for communities of people who are earning valuable income because of those protections — not in spite of them — and who now have improved access to basic needs, such as education and healthcare, fueled from ecotourism activities. I sympathize with colleagues in Indonesia who are battling not only challenges like climate change and poverty in their attempt to save orangutans but also in many cases, governmental policies.
We must think bigger and more strategically. America is a great country, and it is one that can create policies and investments that fuel our economy while protecting our natural resources for generations to come.