Interview: Jane Goodall embraces a broader mission

The noted primatologist has found that in order to save her beloved chimpanzees, she has to educate the people first.

Tom A. Peter
Goodall and teens: The noted primatologist spoke with Boston-area high school leaders of her Roots & Shoots youth program.

Though Jane Goodall first attained international fame in the 1960s for her work with the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, today she spends more time promoting environmental causes than she does in the jungle.

She founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to help people make a positive difference for all living things. Concerned that youths were feeling overwhelmed by environmental challenges, she created Roots and Shoots in 1991, an environmental group for youths that now is active in almost 100 countries.

Reaching beyond the animal kingdom, she has assisted local communities in Africa with a program called TACARE, which works to empower locals to improve their lives through microcredit projects and education initiatives. Most recently, she forged a partnership with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to protect chimpanzees in Gombe and support the local human community by producing ecofriendly coffee.

Dr. Goodall’s work with humans, animals, and the environment prompted the United Nations to name her a Messenger of Peace in 2002.

A Monitor reporter caught up with her on her recent visit to the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan. Here are some excerpts:

How did you make the shift from studying a small group of chimpanzees to becoming a global environmental activist?

[In 1986,] for the very first time, we brought together people from different [chimpanzee] study sites in Africa.… It was fantastic what we learned, but we also had a session on conservation. And it was so shocking to see that right across Africa were the same kind of problems I was seeing at Gombe National Park with the deforestation, the growing human populations and bush-meat trade, which is the commercial hunting of wild animals for food, the live-animal trade, shooting mothers to take babies. The chimpanzee population, which was somewhere between 1 million and 2 million a hundred years ago, definitely more than a million when I began in ’60, and then in ’86 the maximum would have been 350,000. Today, 220,000 is the closest estimate.

I realized that although I went to the conference as a scientist planning to carry on this wonderful life I was living – learning about the chimpanzees, being out in the forest, analyzing the data, doing some teaching, writing books, I mean, you know, idyllic – but I left as an activist, knowing I had to do what I could to help the chimpanzees, to try and do what I could to protect rain forests and raise awareness. First just in Africa, but then I realized that so many of Africa’s problems could be related to the unsustainable lifestyles we have in the affluent societies, particularly in the developed world in the West. And so I realized I had to start taking this message of awareness to Europe, to North America, and increasingly to Asia.

What can people do to protect primates and the environment?

I think the most important thing is that so many people are concerned about the environment. They’re concerned about the way we’re poisoning air, water, and land, and the fact that in so many places people, especially children, are getting sick from environmental problems. They know what’s happening with climate change, they know about the poverty, and the hunger, and the disease around the world. They feel so helpless in the face of all this … that they don’t do anything, because they feel that it’s useless.

I always tell people that the most important thing you can do is to spend a little bit of time learning about and acting on the consequences of the small choices that we make each day, like: What do we buy? For example, clothing: Where does it come from, how was it made, did it involve child slave labor? Food: Where was it grown, how was it grown, did it have a lot of pesticides, can you buy organic?

What is the role of business in protecting the environment?

Those companies can only act in that way [that is, make environmentally conscious decisions] with their shareholders’ approval.

So again it comes back to us: It’s not the company. The company will be driven by the people who buy the products....

The hope for this Roots and Shoots program is that these young people ... will be the next entrepreneurs, the next business people, and they’ll be the next lawyers, doctors, legislators, politicians, teachers, and parents. They are working on projects to make things better for people, animals, and the environment, and learning to live in peace and harmony with each other and between religions, between cultures, between nations, and between us and the natural world. It’s so important and I hope they will understand that there are more important things in this life than simply making money, that we need money to live, but we must never live for money.

Is it harder for the developing world to take actions to protect the environment?

It depends on the government. In a repressive regime, it’s very hard. They have to be very brave and a lot of people get jailed and even killed in the name of justice. But I don’t think there are any problems anywhere in the world where people aren’t desperately working, often for little or no money and risking health and life to try and put those problems right.
I think that more people are responding, because there’s more awareness. So, one, you raise awareness and then you have to try and change behavior. That’s the hard part, but you’ve got to get them aware, first. And then, as I say, there’s this feeling of helplessness, so we have to empower them.

Everybody must remember that every one of us makes a difference, and we have a choice. We all impact the planet in one way or another. We can choose whether we end the day having made things a little bit better or a little bit worse.

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