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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An educated man

Yesterday evening, a man yanked open the door of our car.

'Are you JGI?'

'That's the director right there,' I said pointing to Rebeca.

'You take chimps right?'


'You take chimps. Because I've just bought one of the bloody things.'

Oh shit. Apparently the man, a botanist professor, was in one of the national parks and saw a baby chimp for sale. He bought it.

'We can't take it,' Rebeca said flatly. 'We have too many.'

'But you're JGI!' yelled the botanist. 'You have millions.'

'Did you buy the chimp?' asked Brian.


'Well that was your first mistake. When I go back to that forest, there'll be 10 baby chimps there.'

So an educated man, a European professor, was yelling at JGI for not taking a chimp he paid for.
I couldn't understand why he didn't get that what he'd done was a problem. And if someone like him didn't understand, what chance did we have?

I think a lot about the state of the human condition. We live in Germany. I've spoken to enough Germans to know they are still being punished for what happened to the Jews in WWII.

'How could you just let it happen?' Total strangers ask Germans who weren't even born.

But I think I know. When we first came to Congo two years ago, trucks were carrying giant logs out of the forest. The trees were so big, that only one or two could fit on a truck. Yesterday, on the way to Pointe Noire, I saw another one. The tree trunks were smaller.

Rebeca said she never sees the big trunks any more. They've all been cut down. At a talk in Berlin, a paper showed a map of how much of Central Africa was promised to logging contracts. Almost all of People's Republic of Congo was gone. The government sold their massive trees for about US$40 each.

And watching that logging truck, with the much diminished tree trunks, I knew I was witnessing something terrible. Something whose consequence would be felt generations into the future. But I was overcome with a strange mixture of despair and helplessness. And I did nothing.

Nazi Germany could have happened anywhere. Because when people see something awful, something on a such massive scale they feel powerless in the face of it, we chose the easy way.

So the botanist who saw the baby chimp with a chain around his neck, he felt bad, he wanted to stop feeling bad, so he bought it without thinking about what this would mean for the guy who shot the chimp's family and just made more money than he made in a month by killing them.

So in the end, I understand human nature a little more every day. But I wish we could change. I wish we could. I wish...