To get to the other side, of course. Think of a silverback gorilla and a comparison with a lollipop lady probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. But on a road I visited this week in eastern DRC, the silverbacks play exactly that role.
In the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, humans and eastern lowland gorillas have coexisted since time began. And for many years, there has been a road running through 18km of the park, connecting the villagers to the markets and towns beyond.
The road crosses through two high altitude sections of the park – which is where the gorillas dwell. So a few times a week, they need to cross the road. And to do this, the silverback – the alpha male of the family – stands in the centre of the road to watch out for vehicles, pedestrians or perhaps poachers, and shepherds his family to safety.
I never thought my career would allow me to work on roads and gorillas at the same time. But here my responsibilities are split between managing the UK’s roads programmes in DRC, and making sure all of DFID DRC’s programmes avoid damage to the environment or climate – and deliver the best possible positive environmental and climate benefits.
Roads are essential to development, but if badly managed they can have a detrimental impact on the environment. In a country that is home to most of the world’s second largest forest basin, and where insecurity, isolation and lack of alternatives have led to a thriving trade in bushmeat, this risk is particularly pertinent.
To manage the environmental risks of our roads programmes effectively, and to maximise the positive impacts, we undertake ‘environmental and social impact assessments’ – the jargon for studies that identify the risks and opportunities and think through how to manage them. If environmental and social impacts don’t seem like obvious bedfellows, just think once more about the gorillas and the people in the park. Without a road, the villages are entirely cut off from markets, health services, schools and other essential services, meaning that opportunities for development are limited. Yet the road runs through the gorillas’ habitat – and eastern lowland (or Grauer's) gorillas are an endangered species, with just 4,000 individuals left. They are only found in the eastern forests of DRC. How do we balance these two incredibly important issues, to ensure not only that no damage is done, but that we get the best possible results?
I was in the east of the DRC to visit a road that DFID funded to reopen for the first time in over 20 years in December 2010, as well as the road through the national park, of which we’re funding the maintenance. We have just completed the environmental and social study for these roads, so part of my job was to see the reality on the ground and to make sure that our project partners put an effective system in place to manage the risks.
People in the area were involved in the study, and supported the idea of rehabilitating a road that bypasses the national park. Meanwhile, to ensure the villagers in the park don’t become increasingly isolated, their road will be rehabilitated only to a basic standard, so that the incentives are for all but essential traffic to take the bypass. We’ll also be looking specifically at how much trade in charcoal and bushmeat takes place in the region, before thinking through with the government, NGOs and local people how to ensure that they have not only a road, but a range of alternatives for gaining their income while protecting the environment.
I didn’t see the gorillas on this visit. But maybe one day – as we use our research and resources to get the balance right between their needs and people’s needs – I’ll get to see them safely making their way to the other side.