Book review: ‘Empty Hands, Open Arms,’ by Deni Bechard |

Book review: ‘Empty Hands, Open Arms,’ by Deni Bechard

'Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral,' by Deni Bechard.
Special to the Daily |

When seasoned traveler Deni Bechard signed on to explore the heart of the Congo River Basin, he went knowing that the journey would shatter his own preconceptions and subconscious stereotypes about the African heartland. For, though it is the 21st century, the inner lands of the vast continent of Africa still evoke images of starving children, machete-wielding soldiers and the mysterious landscapes made famous by Marlow and Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness.”

Westerners have ventured into the tangled rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for centuries, most often leaving behind much hardship and distrust among the people.

Some have visited with the intention of claiming a higher purpose, namely that of conservation, which sounds beneficial on the surface; but often seemingly altruistic actions can impact a region and its inhabitants negatively.

In his new book, “Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral,” Bechard documents his own investigation into the world of nongovernmental organizations and their influence in the successes and failures of the decades of conservation efforts on the African continent. One might assume the larger organizations, or those with better funding, are the ones that have the best track records and reputations, but as the author points out that is not always the case.

Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) welcomed Bechard on one of its journeys into the isolated habitat of the elusive and threatened bonobo ape, a closer human relative and a less aggressive species than the chimpanzee. Organization founders Sally Jewell Coxe and her husband, Michael Hurley, hope that their version of ecological husbandry will become the norm across the world, and Bechard used his time in their company to immerse himself in their new and greener template of environmental conservation.

Equal parts travel diary, scientific journal and anthropological analysis, Bechard’s book is a fascinating eye-opener for those whose primary contact with the concept of preservation and guardianship comes from the pages of National Geographic.

Bechard meets a bonobo ape for the first time in Iowa and departs the meeting astounded by the ape’s powerful personality and the magical experience of connection as the bonobo made eye contact. Completely on board with the upcoming adventure, Bechard soon finds himself alongside the team in Kinshasa, soaking up the sights and sounds of a bustling yet impoverished city.

The beguiling ease of his hosts begins to give him glimmers of understanding into how BCI has succeeded where mightier NGOs have failed. Everywhere Sally and Michael go, they are greeted with open arms and raucous dancing, well-wishers welcoming them into their country, assured of their good hearts and honest intentions. Bechard also meets two Congolese men, both of whom run conservation efforts funded by BCI. He discovers the key to the favorable results of the conservation efforts by BCI, a hopeful model for environmental programs worldwide.

The triumphs of BCI’s conservation efforts can be traced to moments when Sally or Michael chose to put their faith in local people, thus giving them the room to take the initiative and instilling ownership in the project’s outcome. Understanding that the local population relies heavily on the forest for food and medicine, and that the people of the Congo have a long history of being exploited for their country’s resources, plays a large part in the methods BCI employs to move its projects forward.

They learned quickly to avoid the colonial tendencies that have plagued conservation efforts in the past. Those same colonial predilections have been the main source of the decades of violence that have afflicted the region, as it is the race to claim and control the great wealth of natural resources that causes such acute distress. More often than not, it is the large outside governments and corporations that are quick to exploit the vulnerable native population, playing the various tribes off one another for their own purposes.

Bechard gives many examples of how both the bonobo and human populations can move forward in harmony, citing BCI’s education initiative, which funds a university that trains people to be participants in the conservation efforts, including the recent initiative in support of ecotourism, which has had success in allowing people a better livelihood than poaching or aggressive agricultural practices.

Ultimately, Bechard’s book explores the concept that the survival of the gentle bonobos from here forward is directly linked to our own success as a species. Learning to value these unique apes’ tendencies toward restraint and perceptiveness, peaceful interaction and communal habitation might just teach us that humans need not only adhere to our violent, primal urges.

Our clear genetic bonds with the bonobos show that human beings do have the potential for working toward the greater good, for the apes, for ourselves and for the planet at large.

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