In 1997, Princess Diana walked through an Angolan minefield to highlight the human devastation of the country’s 27-year civil war. This week, her youngest son, Prince Harry, will make that same walk to help save one of the Earth’s last truly wild places. Thanks to recent U.S. congressional leadership, the region of Angola, Namibia and Botswana –– home to the largest inland watershed in Africa –– will be the beneficiary of this renewed focus.
Stretching from the highlands of Angola into Botswana’s Okavango Delta, an expansive flow of water gives life to vast numbers of bird, plant and mammal species. The greater Okavango River Basin is the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa and the main source of livelihood for more than a million people in the countries of Angola, Namibia and Botswana. The area also sustains the world’s largest elephant population.
The water that feeds this ecosystem is at times below the surface running through peat bogs then to rivulets then wide rivers, and finally into the meandering Okavango Delta. Elephants historically migrated across the three countries, but today these majestic animals remember that the bulk of their path in Angola is a killing field strewn with thousands of landmines. More than 80,000 Angolans have also been killed or injured.
As a result, elephants have concentrated in Botswana. Neither they nor persons come close to the land that served them for millennia along the Cuito and Cubango Rivers of Angola.
Here is the opportunity: With ambitious demining, this rich area could again be home to thousands of elephants, local people and international travelers, fostering economic well-being throughout southern Africa.
The over-concentration of elephants in Botswana is what inspired us in Congress to sponsor the Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals (DELTA) Act. Passed with broad bipartisan support late last year, the DELTA Act gives a mandate to the State Department and other federal agencies to work with the Angola government and regional leaders to promote conservation and sustainable tourism along the watershed.
Since the DELTA Act’s passage, the Angolan government announced an historic commitment of $60 million to the HALO (Hazardous-Area Life-support Organization) Trust, a British-American organization that removes the debris of war. HALO will begin clearing 153 minefields along the migration corridor, laying the groundwork for national parks to expand protection of the pristine habitat.
This demining work will facilitate larger regional efforts focused on biodiversity conservation, sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism, enabling communities and animals to prosper.
The HALO demining initiative and other initiatives that will grow out of the DELTA Act represents what can be achieved when we take a holistic view across development sectors and approach regional assistance in a comprehensive way. A second step is already in the works as the U.S. Forest Service finalizes plans to return to Angola to help evaluate and improve the forests essential for wildlife vitality.
Mirroring the complexity of nature beyond human-defined borders, the DELTA Act represents a new multinational, multi-sectoral strategy to protect species such as the African elephant while creating dynamic new benefits for the surrounding countries and people. Through innovation, creativity and sustainable resource management, we can save and enhance one of the most beautiful and delicate ecosystems in the world.
If we get it right in southern Africa, this sustainable development model can be applied to many of the world’s other important ecosystems, lifting the prospects for 2 billion people remaining in severe poverty.
They, too, will remember.
• Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska independent, is a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, co-chair of the U.S. Congressional International Conservation Caucus and sponsor of the Defending Economic Lives and Threatened Animals (DELTA) Act.
Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, is the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, co-chair of the U.S. Congressional International Conservation Caucus and a co-sponsor of the DELTA Act.