Calling attention to Africa’s bright side

02 February 2011 | News story

The abundance of conservation success stories from Africa is celebrated by IUCN CEC member Haroldo Castro.

Reprinted from arborvitae 42: Communicating Forest Values

Despite being the cradle of humankind, Africa is still mistreated by the international media. As hundreds of millions of people focused their attention on the continent in 2010 (thanks to the football World Cup in South Africa), I envisioned a window of opportunity to rework the mindset of the media and the public opinion.

In November 2009, I landed in Cape Town with my 26-year-old son Mikael Castro, an anthropologist and expert in sustainable tourism, to start an 8-month media expedition throughout Southern and Eastern Africa. The objective of “Lights of Africa” was to bring to the Brazilian audience, who mostly fed a very negative image of Africa by the international media, some good news.

The first step was to convince editors in Brazil to present a different perspective of Africa. I was able to get them onboard with a basic rule: no stories on hunger, crime, Aids or civil conflicts. During our 25,000-mile journey across 18 countries, we produced and published more than 50 short online articles on our blog Lights of Africa and for my travel and conservation weekly column Viajologia. We had five features published on Época magazine and ten television news stories were broadcast on Futura, an educational arm of Globo TV. Most of the stories took a conservation or sustainability angle, but all showed that there is an audience for positive news from Africa.

The great dunes of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the Communal Conservancies in Namibia were the first to catch our eye. During our 23-day stay in the country, zigzagging between natural areas, we focused on the efforts of NGOs, governmental agencies, local communities and tourism operators to sustainably manage natural resources. Government authorities have designated that almost the entire stretch of the 1570-km long Atlantic coastline should be protected. Combining the existing protected areas with the 107,540 km2 of the soon-to-be Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park, will make the sixth largest terrestrial reserve in the planet.

We found a wonderful story in the semiarid lands of Namibia. In 1996, the government granted local communities the right to create and manage their own protected areas. With the support of NGOs, the concept of Communal Conservancies has blossomed. “Today, there are 59 legalized conservancies, totaling more than 130,000 km2. The area protects 16% of the national territory”, says Keith Sproule, from WWF-Namibia. “The 29 joint ventures with tourism operators created almost 1,000 full-time jobs in the region and have been key to alleviate poverty.” It was a good start for “Lights of Africa.” As a result, we published a major feature story, titled “Namibia, a desert with a green conscience”.

The overland journey took us all the way to Northern Sudan, where we were conquered by the hospitality and respect of the Sudanese people. The lines we had read a few months before, at the Department of State website, seemed almost unreal: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Sudan, and recommends that all travel to Sudan be deferred due to uncertain security conditions and the possibility of violence and harassment targeting westerners. Travel anywhere in Sudan, including Khartoum and the adjacent town of Omdurman, is potentially dangerous.” Well, we had a completely different experience! In Khartoum, we were invited to participate in a wedding, a party for a newborn, a wrestling competition and even a religious Sufi ritual.

We were free to photograph and film every moment. We felt so safe in Northern Sudan that we even did bush-camping in the desert for several nights. To reveal this different face of the country, our major feature story was “There is a Sudan of Peace”.

Our trip through Eastern Africa would not have been complete without a stop in Uganda to track mountain gorillas. Although IUCN Red List states that mountain gorillas “are estimated to have experienced a significant population reduction in the past 20-30 years and it is suspected that this reduction will continue for the next 30-40 years”, the last censuses have demonstrated that the numbers of individuals in Uganda (as well as in Rwanda) have increased steadily during this decade. In Bwindi National Park, where we were able to see more than a dozen gorillas (part of the 34-member Nshongi group), the number of primates has jumped from 320 in 2003 to more than 360 in 2010. What’s more, all eight females in the Nshongi group gave birth successfully this year – great news and another feature story!

We met wonderful people throughout our trip, all working hard to develop a sustainable and conservation-oriented Africa. In almost every country we were able to produce stories with the spirit of “Lights of Africa”. However, our effort was very modest as the international media continues to stress Africa’s gloom and sorrows. If everyone concerned with spreading the Lights of Africa does his or her part, we can reverse this trend and help promote hope, peace and prosperity in the region.

Contact: Haroldo Castro, hc@haroldocastro.com

Haroldo is an award-winning video director and producer, an environmental journalist, and a photographer. He is a member of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communications. More at www.haroldocastro.com  and www.LightsOfAfrica.com