Planting the seeds of peace

After decades spent in the forests of Africa studying chimpanzees, British biologist Jane Goodall now travels the world, spreading a message of peace and care for the environment. Interview by Joshua Wickerham.

After decades in the forests of Africa leading pioneering studies on chimpanzees, famed British biologist Jane Goodall now travels more than 300 days of the year promoting care for people, animals and the environment. The Dame of the British Empire sat down with chinadialogue to discuss her work in China with the youth education program Roots & Shoots, which she founded in Tanzania in 1991. Here, she talks about working for peace; fairly traded coffee; Chinese hero biologists; and what it means to have your biography in Chinese school textbooks.

chinadialogue: On September 21, you were in New York in your role as United Nations Messenger of Peace. What does this position mean to you, and how do you use it to promote peace?

Jane Goodall: I was invited to be a Messenger of Peace because of Roots & Shoots. Roots & Shoots is very much about breaking down the barriers that we build between people of different cultures and religions – and between us and the natural world. I actually was planting seeds of global peace.

cd: You also lead and take part in the Roots & Shoots Day of Peace, where people fly giant homemade doves and ring bells made from recycled weapons to celebrate peace.

JG: We hope that Roots & Shoots Day of Peace is being celebrated in at least 50 countries of the world, if not more. There were giant doves flown by many groups in many parts of the world: up mountains; on the oceans; at tops of tall buildings – you name it. We want lots of people involved in celebrating the universal yearning for peace that is shared all around the world.

cd: Your next book is about scientists who almost single-handedly saved animals from the brink of extinction. What do you hope to tell people by writing this book?

JG: I hope this book will provide people with inspiration and hope. Some of the stories are so extraordinary. With one species of bird, the black robin of New Zealand, there were five individuals, but only one female. Most people said: “Oh, give up. This bird is extinct.” There are now more than 500. It is plants as well, and the heroic efforts that have gone into saving a tree species that was reduced to just one individual.

cd: Can you tell us about any Chinese hero biologists?

JG: One hero, Wang Fengwu, works with the giant pandas – he always says breeding in captivity is all very well, but none of it is any use unless we protect the habitat.  Another hero almost single-handedly saved the red crested ibis, which was down to about nine individuals.

cd: The Beijing branch of Roots & Shoots was started in 1994, and you’ve been making annual trips to mainland China since 1998. Many in the west are not hopeful about the prospects for improving the environment in China. Do you know something they don’t?

JG: There’s a new understanding of the fact that it is necessary to protect the environment; that it will lead to increasing social unrest if the environment continues to be polluted, especially China’s rivers. The effects of deforestation and soil erosion – not only the loss of soil, but the terrible dust storms – all these have come together to make the government understand that it is necessary to protect the environment. It’s not easy to do. It’s such a big country. I’m only aware of the fact that the government is trying.

The other sign of hope is that young people are very receptive to this message. Many of the ordinary general public in China are desperately aware of the situation. They really want to do something to help. They’re anguished about it. And the young people are, as everywhere, rolling up their sleeves, getting out there, and taking action through the Roots & Shoots programme.

cd: Roots & Shoots was the first foreign-affiliated non governmental organisation (NGO) to be officially registered by any Chinese NGO Administration Bureau. Why do you think that is?

JG: The second year I was in China, I was summoned by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) vice minister, Pan Yue. He spoke no English, but we had meeting where I was able to explain to him about Roots & Shoots. I think I caught his attention by demonstrating to him how a chimpanzee female greets a high ranking male – and it made him laugh. We talked for an hour and a half. He asked me to put the Roots & Shoots programme in the schools. I think one of the reasons is that it was very clear to officials that Roots & Shoots was actually helping them achieve their goals of greening the city, and preparing for the Olympics.

cd: Can you update us about your fair trade coffee products?

JG: That is extremely exciting. Coffee grows extremely well around [Tanzania’s] Gombe National Park in the high hills. The farmers were not making money because there is no infrastructure. They were selling to a middleman who lumped their coffee with the less good coffee. We went in with Green Mountain coffee roasters and farmers last year and got a higher price than they’ve ever had.

cd: Do you think Chinese consumers will be able to buy these fair trade products?

JG: Eventually, but what I think is far better is that we are talking with Green Mountain to use a “Take Care” model—improving the lives of villagers in as many ways as possible, in ways that they believe is best. We want to replicate this around other wilderness areas that desperately need protection to help the people who are living in poverty, and who are destroying the environment simply to survive and grow crops.  

This would mean seeking out places like Haiti, for example, where they could grow good coffee. They’ve got the right climate and the right soil, and they can use that to try to regenerate the devastated Haitian environment. We’re going to see if that can take the place of Fair Trade.

cd: You’re a face that consumers can trust.

JG: Well, hopefully, yes. I haven’t done anything to make them mistrust me.

cd: Some consumers are willing to pay more for fair trade.

JG: Some people are willing to pay more and do, but there’s a limit to the number of people who can afford to do that.

cd: Despite growing environmental awareness in China, purchases often conflict with that awareness. Young Chinese consumers express concern about pollution caused by cars, but most admit they would like to buy a car when they get the disposable income to do so.

JG: Well, that’s the problem, matching up what you think with what you do.

cd: What’s your advice?

JG: Just hammer away. Are you just going to be one more polluter? Is there something else you can possibly do? In the UK and Europe, people are turning to bicycles. Executives are bicycling to work. There are also congestion charges in London. It’s very complex and there is no easy solution, but making people aware is step one. Making people aware of what the options are is step two. Whether they can afford those options or choose to go for them, it’s going to be an individual situation.

cd: What does it mean for Chinese people now that China is set to become the biggest emitter of CO2?

JG: Well, what has it meant in the US, which still is the biggest emitter so far? They would much rather that someone else paid the cost. I have no idea what that means to the Chinese people. It’s easy for a young person with no money to rail against it, but as they get money they are probably going to become one of the consumers – and one of the polluters. Meanwhile, we have to fightfor a carbon trading scheme to save the remaining forests. At least let’s capitalise on the pollution, while finding ways of doing things with less pollution. Let’s at least make people pay to save the forests.

cd: A generation of Chinese school children has grown up reading about you in their textbooks. How does that make you feel? What kinds of situations has it put you in? Has it given you any special opportunities?

JG: It gives me huge opportunities because kids want to listen – and adults too. They love learning about the chimpanzees. They want to meet me. They see me as someone quite strange, somebody who has been living out in the forest with big black apes. They find that fascinating. Once you have an audience fascinated, then if you do it right, then you talk to them about other issues, other important issues of the day, and you find them listening. You can engage people who come to listen to you. It’s very useful – surprising to me – but useful.

Joshua Wickerham works in Beijing as a research assistant for AccountAbility. He is also a masters degree degree candidate at the University of California San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He can be reached at joshua.wickerham [at]