Wilson Center Premieres ‘Healthy People, Healthy Environment’ and ‘Transcending Boundaries’ at Environmental Film FestivalApril 17, 2013 By Maria Prebble
Environmental security and international development aren’t typical movie-going fare, but at the 2013 DC Environmental Film Festival, ECSP premiered two short documentaries with unique environmental stories: Healthy People, Healthy Environment: Integrated Development in Tanzania shows how improving health services and environmental conservation can empower coastal communities in Africa; and Transcending Boundaries: Perspectives from the Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area Network explores the opportunities for “peace parks” along the shared borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Aziz Isham of Arcade Sunshine Media introduced the films and was joined for discussion by Healthy People producer Sean Peoples of the Wilson Center and Transcending Boundaries filmmakers Cory Wilson of The Collaborative and Todd Walters of International Peace Park Expeditions.
“We Women Are Now Awake”
Filmed on location in Northern Tanzania, Healthy People, Healthy Environment depicts an integrated population, health, and environment (PHE) development project that combines interventions like reproductive health services, clean cookstoves, and seaweed farming.
The coastal villages in the film have high population growth rates and community members are directly reliant on local natural resources, including timber and fish, for their livelihoods. The PHE project, run by the BALANCED Project and supported by USAID, helps the community develop alternative livelihoods that are more sustainable while also helping to meet local unmet demand for contraceptives and other reproductive health services.
“We initially had a problem fetching firewood, but with the advent of the clean cookstove, it is much easier to make a fire with less wood,” says Mahija Mswahili, a restaurant owner from Mkwaja village, in the film. Once she was able to spend less time gathering wood, she started baking bread and selling it. Clean cookstoves not only reduce pressure on the forest, it also provides women with income-generating opportunities.
Encouraging women’s empowerment in this way not only improves the productivity of families, but also helps women gain control over their health and leads to better environmental outcomes, as women are more likely to take better stewardship of natural resources than men.
“In the past, women had few rights and weren’t in business,” Rukia Sefu, a mother and business owner in Mkwaja, told Peoples. “We women are now awake and have moved forward.”
Cooperation Amidst Conflict
Transcending Boundaries examines the intertwined environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues in the Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area – one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, as well as one of the most densely populated. Encompassing parts of Uganda (Bwindi, Kibali, Mgahinga, Rwenzori, Semuliki, and Queen Elizabeth National Parks), Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Virunga National Park), the Central Albertine Rift area is also subject to incursions by violent poachers and rebel groups.
Since civil war erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda in the 1990s, armed conflict, ethnic cleansing, and environmental degradation have undermined conservation and development projects in the region. But there have also been strong cross-border collaborations.
In 1991, the International Gorilla Conservation Program became the first example of cross-border collaboration between the three countries. In 2006, the Transboundary Core Secretariat developed a plan to achieve a common vision for conservation, peace, and poverty alleviation in the region, and wardens from the three countries meet quarterly to plan routine park management activities and organize park patrols.
Improving communication and sharing information “is very important for the conservation of these protected areas,” said Prosper Uwingeli, a Rwandan park warden interviewed in the film.
Transboundary collaboration also contributes to economic development: The lowland gorilla tourism industry is valued at approximately $20 million annually, and as a result of transboundary agreements, the revenue is split between the countries.
“The Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area Network is an example of cross-border collaboration for the entire world to see,” said Elaine Hsiao, a U.S. Fulbright student research grantee and co-director/producer of the film.
“We hear so much negative press about the region,” Walters said. “We need to hear a positive story that is happening despite those challenges.”
Both Peoples and Wilson emphasized the importance of preparation prior to filming. “One of the advantages of working with a small team in a situation like this is that it provides an opportunity to generate some real trust with the people that you’re interviewing and speaking with,” said Walters. Wilson, who did the filming for Transcending Boundaries, was able to complete 30 interviews in 11 days and over 1,500 kilometers of travel by drawing on the network Hsiao had developed during her Fulbright fieldwork.
In Healthy People, Healthy Environment, women feature prominently, in part because Peoples had the help of Dr. Ole Sepere, a local physician who knew nearly everyone in the communities and could help him navigate cultural barriers. In contrast, Wilson said they could not get any local women’s perspectives on camera because of traditional gender roles and because women were largely absent from leadership roles in their communities and the parks.
Despite these challenges, the filmmakers said that the documentary format is a powerful medium to tell environmental stories. “You can use film to augment a message and inspire people to act,” said Peoples.
Film is “storytelling that empowers exceptional people to do exceptional things,” Wilson said.
Sources: International Gorilla Conservation Program, National Geographic, Wildlife Conservation Society.
Video Credit: “Healthy People, Healthy Environment,” courtesy of Sean Peoples and Michael T. Miller/Wilson Center; “Transcending Boundaries: Perspectives from the Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area Network,” courtesy of Todd Walters and Corey Wilson/International Peace Park Expeditions.