Matthew Cassetta served as the U.S. Regional Environmental Hub Officer for West and Central Africa from 2004 to 2006.
It is nearly midnight and my colleagues and I are under a perfect sea of stars in a remote forest village in northeast Gabon, near the border with Cameroon. There is a bonfire blazing, and we watch transfixed as a parade of wildly painted dancers leap, imitating leopards and forest spirits. Women shake palm leaves and sing the high, haunting notes of traditional pygmy song. It is a lulling, vivid night of magic to treasure.
We were in the village to make a donation of tools to its leaders and to discuss the new national parks law, which was widely heralded by conservationists but little understood locally. The visit was also a microcosm of why I have told people many times that this may just be the best Foreign Service job in Africa: Regional Environmental Hub Officer for West and Central Africa. Meeting regularly with scientists, NGOs, villagers, government officials and wildlife experts gave me a better understanding of how development affects not only the environment but also the livelihoods of people in this struggling region.
My two years based in Libreville took me to 24 countries for reporting, representation and field visits to talk to people involved in a range of development, science and conservation programs. The job entailed site visits to remote wildlife preserves, ecotourism sites and logging camps, to document initiatives and participate in briefings with regional environmental officials about how to best conserve the region's fragmented forests and dwindling wildlife. I also played a part in writing and monitoring grant projects which are key to supporting park networks, providing technical assistance and trouble-shooting between donors and NGOs. I also maintained a steady stream of reporting back to Washington on issues ranging from poaching to health epidemics to watershed management and conservation milestones.
There is good news from Africa, though the environment may not often make the headlines. Recent years have seen an impressive degree of regional cooperation, particularly among the six countries of the Congo Basin, resulting in cross-border protected areas being established, collaboration in research and -- against all odds -- even some small but successful tourism ventures. If the world knew a bit more about Africa's magnificent forests, wildlife, waterfalls and other unique features, I am convinced there would be even more interest in their conservation.