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When acclaimed author Deni Béchard first learned of the last living bonobos – matriarchal great apes that are, alongside the chimpanzee, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – he was completely astonished. How could the world possibly accept the extinction of this majestic species? Béchard discovered one relatively small NGO, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), which has done more to save bonobos than many far larger organizations.
Based on the author's extensive travels in the Congo and Rwanda, Empty Hands, Open Arms explores BCI's success, offering a powerful, truly postcolonial model of conservation. In contrast to other traditional conservation groups Béchard finds, BCI works closely with Congolese communities, addressing the underlying problems of poverty and unemployment, which lead to the hunting of bonobos. By creating jobs and building schools, they gradually change the conditions that lead to the eradication of the bonobos.
This struggle is far from easy. Devastated by the worst military conflict since World War II, the Congo and its forests continue to be destroyed by aggressive logging and mining. Béchard's fascinating and moving account Empty Hands, Open Arms – filled with portraits of the extraordinary individuals and communities who make it all happen offers a rich example of how international conservation must be reinvented before it's too late.
Deni Béchard's first novel, Vandal Love, won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He has also authored a memoir, Cures for Hunger, and written for a number of magazines and newspapers, among them the LA Times, Salon, Outside, the National Post, VQR, Maisonneuve, Le Devoir, the Harvard Review, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin . He has been a fellow at MacDowell, Jentel, the Edward Albee Foundation, Ledig House, the Anderson Center, and Vermont Studio Center, among others. He has done freelance reporting from Northern Iraq as well as from Afghanistan, and he has traveled in more than fifty countries.
"Here is the matter of conservation given profound explanation – a searching and knowing consideration that enables an important social and political and cultural struggle in Africa to become a needed lesson for us who live elsewhere to ponder, take to heart."
– Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
"Into the Congo, this adventure reveals not a heart of darkness but a rich world of light, shade, and imperiled life, a connection between the human and the great circle of being."
– James Engell, Editor of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology
"An inspired, poignant, and seriously researched look at a subject of profound importance."
– Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and author of The Serpent and the Rainbow
"A story that movingly illuminates the time we live in, a tale of an emblematic struggle in which the fate of all of us and our future on this planet are at stake."
– Bruce Rich, author of Mortgaging the Earth and To Uphold the World
"An emotionally-enthralling, nuanced voyage into the conundrums of bonobo conservation."
– William Powers, author of Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge
"A brilliant example of how conservationists can work with communities to save not only their own immediate environments but also the world at large through courage, cooperation and compassion."
– Grant Hayter-Menzies, author of Imperial Masquerade and Shadow Woman
"Readers of this book will be entertained and moved by Deni Béchard's stories about this remarkable endangered and irreplaceable species and those dedicating their lives to saving them."
– Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade and The Real Wealth of Nations
"The embodiment of the type of reporting that we dream of reading, but all too rarely encounter – intelligent, engaged, and above all, astonishingly perceptive."
– Dinaw Mengestu, MacArthur Fellow and author of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
"Béchard's riveting journey through the 'dark continent' provides a surprisingly uplifting story about a radically different and successful conservation program."
– David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature
"Journalist Béchard, a foreign correspondent familiar with war zones, probes beneath headlines describing the Congo as 'a country of such inhumanity that we find it incomprehensible' and finds another, more hopeful reality [...] Béchard's adventurous travels in the Congo offer spice to this rich, complex account."
– Kirkus Reviews
"For this absorbing report on the BCI's innovative methods, renowned journalist Béchard mingled with Congo villagers and BCI fieldworkers, observing how the conservationists forged alliances with villagers to build new schools and create jobs. In a country torn by unremitting military strife and rapacious mining, BCI's work has also helped slow rain-forest destruction. Béchard's masterful, adventure-driven reporting delivers an inspiring account of an all-too-rare ecological success story."
– Carl Hays, Booklist
"A poignant exploration of a unique model of international conservation that re-imagines intervention for the for the benefit of both ecosystems and local communities."
– Vancouver Sun
"A book that not only provides a rare ray of positivity in an often gloomy field but helps outsiders make sense of the Congo."
– Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette
"A vivid, inspiring book, imbued with Bechard's keen eye for detail."