Author Deni Bechard speaks at CMC Breckenridge about making conservation efforts go viral |

Author Deni Bechard speaks at CMC Breckenridge about making conservation efforts go viral

Bonobo in Kokolopori Reserve.
Deni Béchard / Special to the Daily |

If you go

What: Author Deni Bechard presents his book, “Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation go Viral”

When: Wednesday, Jan. 22; 7-8 p.m. reading and talk; 8 p.m. book signing

Where: Eileen and Paul Finkel Auditorium, Colorado Mountain College, Breckenridge

Cost: Free

More information: Visit

When author Deni Béchard failed to be empowered by the available literature on environmental conservation, he began researching his own book on the topic.

“I’d been reading books on the environment and conservation, and I was struck by how they all said we’re doomed,” Béchard said. “The key message is that it’s too late and we’re on the brink of collapse.”

The most frustrating thing about these books, Béchard said, was that they offered very few solutions other than convincing government and world leaders to wake up and pass laws to correct environmental problems, a daunting task for an individual who wanted to make a difference.

“There’s a lack of books that offered a concrete solution, that offered us tools that we could all use to think differently about conservation and the environment,” he said. “So I began looking for stories that would offer that. I talked to everyone that I knew and tried to get a sense of what was happening with the conservation world.”

Through his networking, Béchard found the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI).

“I was impressed by their approach,” he said. “For how a fraction, approximately 3 percent, of the budget of the big (nongovernmental organizations), they had established almost three times the conservation area. They were making conservation go viral by empowering local people to have control over their resources, giving them education and facilitating their own goals and their own success as leaders. I thought it was an interesting approach; it didn’t use a lot of money, which is a major concern today.”

Writing a book

Béchard’s book “Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral” is the result of a year and a half of research and interviews culminating in a trip to the Congo with BCI to see firsthand how the viral approach was impacting the fate of the bonobos in the region.

“Bonobos are the least-known great ape,” Béchard said. “People are familiar with orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas. Both bonobos and chimps share 98.7 percent of our DNA, and yet chimps are war-like, male dominated and they kill each other.”

Bonobos, on the other hand, are matriarchal and the common practice of infanticide in chimpanzee populations has never been witnessed with bonobos.

“If a male (bonobo) attacks a female, he’ll be attacked by all the females,” Béchard said. “There’s this fascinating exception to the law of male violence, where male violence is the determining factor of great ape cultures for control and hierarchy.”

Bonobos only live in a select region of the Congo, and there are between 5,000 and 25,000 in the wild, the result of being heavily hunted. Béchard said the apes fascinated him with their intelligence and their social bonds, their capacity to understand language and their propensity for solving conflicts through sex, rather than violence.

“They share the same range of emotions that we do, whether it’s love, loyalty, grief — they have all those human emotions,” he said. “They are on the verge of extinction, and they offer a window into evolution, the evolution of great apes and our own evolution.”

Smaller, more efficient NGOs

Béchard said BCI has had more success in its conservation efforts with the bonobos than larger nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, because its system is based on local cultures.

“Their No. 1 rule is that poverty does not equal ignorance,” he said. “The first thing they do is learn from the people — how their society works, their values — they learn every single thing they can from these people to get a sense of how conservation can be organic in their lives.”

BCI has been successful in understanding the goals and culture of the people of the Congo and building a conservation system that works within that framework. The program then felt like it emerged organically from their society and the people felt like they had control of it, Béchard said, rather than trying to shape a solution based on Western ideals.

“I would say that Westerners often see people in Africa as the problem for conservation, and we need to see them as the solution,” he said. “The people there are the solution. And they are the ones who are going to be able to save the forest. And Western arrogance and sense of superiority and our belief that we know best and that what we come up with in universities and think tanks are the best solutions has been a huge stumbling block for us.”

If we want to save the rainforests and save the native species in Africa, we need to learn how to truly build connections, collaborate as equals and learn from the local people, Béchard said.

“That’s the biggest thing I learned,” he said. “And the emphasis is that even when we think we’re doing that, we are not because we’re so entitled and we have such a cultural arrogance that we know best, that people can work for years in Africa and not even realize how arrogant and superior their behavior is.”

Applying the message at home

Béchard said what surprised him the most about writing “Empty Hands, Open Arms” was that the tools he learned could be applied in a useful way to every conservation situation.

“Ultimately, we are in a period in human history where we need to make radical but subtle change,” he said. “We need to adapt the way we think about community. We need to adapt the way we think about collaboration. We’re an extremely individualistic society, and every citizen is responsible for engaging these issues.”

People in Colorado are facing all of the same environmental questions; with industry and populations growing, everything is changing quickly everywhere, Béchard said, and people need to learn how to listen and understand the values of others to find common solutions.

“The message in the book is Westerners aren’t the best at collaboration and listening,” he said. “Those are skills we need to develop very quickly if we want to protect our resources and establish environmentally conscience communities.”

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