Dr. Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall won hearts and changed minds when she traveled to Tanzania to study wild chimpanzees at the age of just twenty-six. She has since dedicated her life to teaching us all how to be better humans and how to protect the world we live in. In 1977, she founded The Jane Goodall Institute, a global community conservation organization that advances her work and vision. Jane is also a United Nations Messenger of Peace and the recipient of the 2017 DVF Lifetime Leadership Award. This month, as July 14 marked the anniversary of Jane’s research in Gombe and the first World Chimpanzee Day, we were fortunate enough to catch up with her about the important work she is doing all over the world and the crucial role we all play in our collective future.
I spent very many wonderful years with the chimpanzees in the rainforest and when I realized that their numbers were declining, I knew I had to go to Africa and learn more about it. I did learn about the problems facing the chimpanzees, but I also learned about the problems facing the human communities living in and around their habitat. After flying over tiny Gombe National Park where I did my research, I looked down at what had been part of a great forest and saw a tiny oasis of trees surrounded by completely bare hills, where people were struggling to survive. That’s when I knew, we have to help the people to improve their lives, to give them alternatives to cutting down the last of the trees even on the very steep slopes because they were so desperate to grow food to feed their family or make charcoal to make some money. This is what turned into the Jane Goodall Institute’s community-centered conservation “Take Care” or TACARE approach and it’s worked. We now have the villagers as our partners in six different African countries.
Can you speak further to what that means, the micro-credits and the scholarships you’re providing, some of those programs?
When we began the Jane Goodall Institute’s conservation program, we didn’t go into the little villages around Gombe, you know, a bunch of arrogant white people saying this is what we are going to do, this is going to improve your lives. No. It was a team of local Tanzanians and they went into the villages and asked them what they thought we could do to make their lives better. We started where they wanted by restoring fertility to the overused farmland and building better health and education facilities. We worked with the local Tanzanian government. Then as the villages came to trust us—learning that we were different from than the other NGO’s—and we were able to introduce water management projects and what I believe is our best intervention, village savings and loan programs or microcredits, groups of women choosing environmentally sustainable projects and when they pay back they can take out another loan if they so wish. Along with that we were able to provide scholarships for girls to keep them in school beyond puberty. It’s been shown all around the world that as women’s education improves, as women become increasingly empowered, so family size tends to drop and that’s the underlying problem. So, the villages really are interested and welcome family planning.
Can you tell us more about your Roots & Shoots program and the importance of engaging children?
To keep our projects in Africa going, it requires a lot of travel to go around the world raising support and awareness about the issues we’re facing. While I was traveling around the world, I was meeting young people, high school and university, who seemed to be really either just apathetic, not caring, depressed, violent, or angry. And when I began talking to them, they all said more or less the same, whether they were in Africa or Europe or America or Asia, “Well, we feel this way because you’ve compromised our future and there’s nothing we can do about it.” And we have compromised their future. You hear this saying, ‘We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children.’ It’s not true. We’ve stolen the future from our children. We are still stealing it as we pollute, destroy the forests, create acidic zones in the ocean and fresh water supplies are decreasing and now we’ve got climate change. Which, according to me and every scientist I’ve ever met, is not a hoax. It’s for real. And I’ve seen the ice melting in Greenland and I’ve seen water levels rising so that island people must leave their homes. So, it’s not surprising that young people have lost hope. Because the problems seem huge. This is why I started our Roots & Shoots program for young people which began with 12 high school students in Tanzania. They were concerned about all kinds of problems in the world around them. So, I told them to go get their friends who felt the same. We had a big gathering and out of it came this program. The most important message of Roots & Shoots: every single one of us makes a difference every single day and we have a choice what kind of difference will we make. So, because I understood the interconnection of everything out in the rainforest this program from the beginning was holistic. Each group would choose three projects to make the world better. One to help people, one to help other animals and one to help the environment we all share. Growing up through it came this feeling of urgency that we should live in harmony with people from different nations, different cultures, different religions, and between us and the natural world.
When you’re working with these young people, as someone who found your calling very early on, how do you encourage them to find their own and follow that? What advice would you give?
When we start a Roots & Shoots group, or sometimes young people start their own Roots & Shoots group, the most important message is that every individual has a role to play. Once young people understand the problems and you empower them to take action, you listen to their voices, and they choose their projects. So, they choose what they’re passionate about and that’s why it’s working so well. Because every child in Roots & Shoots is involved in something they care about, not something from the top down that we tell them to do. So yes, we do teacher training, we provide examples of the kind of projects that young people can do and I think that’s why it’s working so well.
Your approach to field work in the beginning was very unique to you and would you say you brought a feminine approach, an empathetic approach. Did you feel being a woman as an advantage?
When I was a little girl and dreaming about the future, I planned to go to Africa and live with animals. Later, I was so lucky to be offered the opportunity by Dr. Louis Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologist, to go and live with and learn from not just any animal but the one most like us, the chimpanzee. At that time nobody had been out in the field doing research like this. I was so lucky. I was the first. I didn’t have any guidelines. Louis Leakey never came to Gombe. I was just thrown out there. I hadn’t been to college. So what did I do? What I had done as a child, roaming about on the cliffs outside my home, watching, learning, writing everything down. My mind wasn’t cluttered up with scientific theory, so I really did begin to learn about the chimpanzees from almost their perspective. It wasn’t until I was made to go to university by Louis Leakey to get a PhD that I was told I’d done everything wrong. I should have given the chimpanzees numbers, not names. I should have not talked about personality, mind or emotion because those were unique to us. Fortunately, I had this great teacher when I was a child that was my dog, Rusty, who taught me that animals do have minds, emotions and unique personalities. So I was able to stand up for what I believed in. I had an amazing supervisor who helped me write things in such a way that I could convey this to my scientific colleagues. And eventually I earned my PhD and built up a research station.
You often speak to the individual action and the choices we make matter. Where should someone start if they’re at the moment of realizing they want to get involved in something bigger than themselves?
I think the big problem today is that more and more people are beginning to understand what we’ve done to the planet and they feel helpless because the problems are too huge and they’re getting bigger and bigger so they do nothing. That’s the danger and that’s why the message of Roots & Shoots—that every individual makes a difference—is important to spread throughout all communities. Even if you just think about the consequences of the little choices you make each day, what do you buy, what do you eat, what do you wear, where did it come from, do you need it, then the world starts moving in a different direction and I think this is really one of the most important things.