Exclusive interview with impact photographer Filip C Agoo
In December 2019, Everland commissioned Impact Photographer Filip C Agoo to document the pioneering forest conservation initiative by Wildlife Works, the Mai Ndombe REDD+ project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Interview by Natalie Prolman, Impact & Reporting consultant to Everland LLC
Q: Can you tell us about your background and the assignment given to you by Everland?
A: I have enjoyed a long career as a commercial photographer and have always had a special interest in using my photography skills in a way that could benefit society.
I call it CSR: Creative Social Responsibility — that is to contribute and make an impact on the world around you with your creativity and art.
Gerald Prolman, the president of Everland, contacted me and explained that they needed help documenting the vital conservation work being done in various forest conservation projects around the world that Everland represents, starting with the Mai Ndombe REDD+ project located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
He explained to me the problem he was trying to solve — that these conservation projects are located in developing countries in some of the world’s most remote areas, places that a majority of people are not familiar with, could never imagine and may likely never have the chance to visit.
Gerald felt that this disconnect makes it possible for those who have the wherewithal to help to instead choose to close their eyes and hearts to the destruction of our planet’s precious forests, the demise of wildlife species and to the needless suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. He was convinced that if anyone visited one of these sacred places, that they would be moved to recognize their responsibility and be compelled to do whatever it takes to help.
My assignment was to bridge a heart connection between the Mai Ndombe community and corporate decision makers who are seeking meaningful ways to offset their company’s unavoidable carbon emissions.
The scope of the assignment included a five-week journey to a faraway, isolated part of the world where I was to immerse myself in the community, including an extended stay in a village that is home to Indigenous Baka Pygmies, to discover and reveal in photographs the true nature and impact of this important conservation project.
This was the ultimate dream job for me. To be able to use my creative expression through photography to make a positive contribution to the world, this spoke to the core of what I want to do with my life. So, without hesitation I took the assignment.
At that moment, I had no idea what I was soon to witness. The experience was well beyond anything I could have imagined. I can honestly say that my life has changed profoundly because of this opportunity.
Q: Why was the photo shoot canceled?
The trip was temporarily canceled at the last minute because of the deadly, but largely ignored, measles epidemic that is still going on in the DRC.
To date, over 6,000 people have died from the measles (a preventable disease) in the Congo since the outbreak began at the end of 2019. The staff at Wildlife Works understandably had their hands full helping to meet the needs of the community during this crisis, providing emergency medical response and vaccines to the community.
I was told that children were dying, and this was not a good time to photograph the project’s impacts.
Q: What made you decide to go anyway?
I knew about the epidemic but wasn’t afraid for myself, as I had already been vaccinated. A privilege that most people in the western world have been afforded. I wouldn’t be in danger.
It struck me that documentary films exist as factual record that help shine a light on subjects that are not covered by the mainstream media, and it was clear to me that this story, now more than ever, needed to be told. From that moment, this was no longer an assignment. It became a mission.
Q: What were your first impressions of the project?
My first impression when I arrived at the project was that I was time traveling to an era before plastic.
Given that there was a measles and rubella epidemic taking place, I was quite surprised to be welcomed with singing and dancing. There was so much joy and happiness, it was remarkable. I mentioned to the Wildlife Works Country Manager and head of the project, Jean-Robert Bwangoy Bankanza Bolambee, (affectionally known as “JR,)” how beautiful and joyous the welcoming was. And he replied “Yes, but now they are grieving. This is the community when they are sad, they are losing their children right now.”
And for me, this was a powerful moment for reflection. I thought, okay so these people, who are dealing with deep sadness and by the measures of our society are considered to have “nothing” seem happier than the people back home in Stockholm who supposedly have “everything.”
Seeing kids running along, singing and dancing and playing and just having fun, being so close to laughter. Yet, these children face incredibly hard challenges. It is a situation that is very tough in so many ways. But still, to have this underlying joy and happiness so present is profoundly different from anything I have ever experienced back home.
To me, it was clear that the people here are grounded and connected in a most special way. They are connected to nature and to their community. While I see us, of the developed world, to be the disconnected ones.
That was my first impression.
Q: Had you visited a REDD+ project before?
This was my first time visiting a REDD+ project. I saw the dedication and amazing work done by the staff of Wildlife Works and learned how the REDD+ model serves to empower a community and contributes to their development. It was beautiful and humbling to witness.
Seeing the infrastructure for building schools and hospitals and how the project provides scholarships to children, lifesaving vaccines and creates jobs in villages that were previously without any, it became so real and I understood how a REDD+ project could bring about transformative benefits to a community.
It’s a fantastic model that brings together forest protection and local economic development, where the wildlife win as well. This is an incredible collaboration between the government, community and Wildlife Works. When I spoke with people and asked them how the project has impacted their lives, it was clear that everyone had some positive experience and were proud to participate in the REDD+ program.
They see hope, a way to survive and a chance to broadly improve conditions without having to cut down their forest, without selling out to logging companies. There is an understanding that if they cut down the trees, they could benefit one generation, but that if they keep their forest standing, they will be able to ensure a future for many generations to come.
Q: What would you say is the biggest threat to protecting the forest currently?
The good news is, that since the project launched in 2011, logging has halted and with the aid of reforestation programs, the deforested areas have had a chance to regenerate.
The most important thing this project needs in order to continue protecting its forest, is to sell the Verified Emission Reductions (VERs) (also known as carbon credits or offsets) that it earns from the successful conservation work that is being done. Against all odds and unbelievable pressures, they are protecting the forest, and now need to be paid for the performance they deliver. The performance is preserving the standing forest, a forest that would have been destroyed without the efforts of the project.
In my view, the main barrier to success of the project right now is that the DRC is prejudiced as a high-risk country, which often reduces critically needed support for the project.
Those who colonized the DRC took whatever they wanted, gave nothing back and left it in disarray. A new government is working hard to lift up its people and shed the perceived stigma related to the country risk that has nothing to do with the project.
I learned that if conservation performance is not rewarded, illegal logging could start back up because there would be no incentive to stop the deforestation. It’s a simple concept. People are desperate for food, medicine and basic needs that we take for granted. With the project, the local community has a positive way forward. But they need to be compensated for the work they are doing in order to keep going.
Q: What would you like people to know most about this project and the people that live there?
There is a community of 180,000 people deep in the Congo Basin that hope anyone reading this article, that is able to help, will recognize and support their work to protect one of the world’s most precious forests. I was welcomed in these villages with open arms and love and curiosity. The people from Mai Ndombe have endless faith and hope. There is no better, or more important place on the planet in my perspective to support than the Congo. You will make a profound and lasting impact on people’s lives for future generations.
For more information about the Mai Ndombe REDD+ Project, please visit the Everland website.