Commemorating Real Actors of Change: From Dian Fossey to Local Communities


What makes these pictures so powerful is that these women are not so different from one another. One dedicated more than 18 year of her life to the protection and study of the Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains; the others are Congolese women, mothers that decided to voice their concerns about oil exploration in Virunga national park during the visit of President Kabila to North Kivu.

All of them show an amazing act of courage and teach us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Sometimes you just need one person to set things in motion and create real change. All of these women, no matter how different their lives and goals were, how distant their lives seem to be, they all made the same choice to step out of their comfort zone and risk their lives for what really matters, for the future of gorillas and for the future of their children and the generations to come.

These women are as much as a conservation hero as Dian Fossey was in her own time. Simply because they are one of the few to take real steps and endure the risks in the mist of the conflict and fight for the survival of the last mountain Gorilla’s and of Africa’s oldest national park. They are challenging the status quo and standing for their commitment to a sustainable future.

This comparison and similarity might be at odds with Dian Fossey’s image portrayed is the BBC article written on the commemoration of her death 30 years ago. What’s makes this article so different is that instead of commemorating Dian’s activism and presence on the frontline of conservation, when no others were willing to take the risks, it seems to be representing an obsessed and confrontational woman who caused her own death.

The article forgets to acknowledge the role of activism and the importance of these people and their courage to change things on the ground and for the long term. Without their force and sacrifice you will find it harder to get enough traction to make “conservationists” or any other organization move into the right direction and look for real change.

Like Naomi Klein rightly says, “Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.” The poaching of Gorillas wasn’t a crisis until Dian Fossey turned it into one.

Her antics might have been confrontational and militant, but who dared to challenge the status quo in the 80’s? These women might not have received much support, but who dares to stand in front of DRC security forces and voice their concerns against oil exploration? How many organizations were supporting Dian’s efforts and how many were profiting from her success?

Yesterday, communities were not part of the solution, like oil companies should not be part of the solution in Virunga; in period of crisis radical change is needed and there is no room for gentle tweaks to the status quo.

We need real people, commitment and activism. We need their inspirational power.

No money or funding can ever replace that.