Allies Across Oceans: An Interview with Marie Meloche

Written By: Nicola Shaw, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: From The Field

In 2015, the United Nations and its member states implemented a bold new action plan to address economic, social and environmental development around the world: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Building on the Millennium Goals and the targets they missed, the SDGs provide an agenda and 17 key targets focused on alleviating poverty, combatting climate change, preventing environmental degradation and ensuring that peace and prosperity are known to all by the year 2030. Now, just ten years away from that deadline, we take a look at how the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada is working towards achieving these goals.

Marie Meloche, Program Manager at JGI Canada monitors and implements international and national JGI programs with key Sustainable Development Goals in mind. This work can take her as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo, home of the Congo basin and 75% of the entire African chimpanzee population, with an estimated 70-110,000 wild chimpanzees on record. However, with rapid population growth and debilitating poverty in the region, the chimpanzees and wildlife native to this area are under increasing threat.

To address this challenge, JGI saw an opportunity for a community-centered conservation project in eastern DRC, establishing the Delivering Healthy Futures (DHF) initiative with financial support from the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada. Based in 20 villages along an important wildlife corridor, DHF provides enhanced maternal, newborn and infant health services, including family planning, an extensive vaccination campaign and the construction of maternal health clinics equipped with solar panels and sanitary infrastructure. Each of these provisions contributes directly towards the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Goal #3 – Good Health and Wellbeing, Goal #5 – Gender Equality and Goal #6 – Clean Water and Sanitation.


Footage from the field: a maternal healthcare centre recently built in Okuku, Lubutu.

 

For a lot of people, the link between strengthening maternal healthcare programs and achieving JGI’s mission of understanding and protecting chimpanzees and their habitat isn’t an obvious one. But, as Marie puts it, “improving the quality of life for people in the chimp range just makes sense because their health has an impact on their overall ability to contribute to the conservation of their land. That’s what I learned beyond the theory; how the notion of interconnectedness between people, animals, and the environment really makes sense in the bigger picture.”

Since joining the JGI team, Marie has visited the clinics and met with community members, health workers and head nurses in the field. Although she believes, “the level of poverty is still the biggest challenge,” she was inspired to find that when she and the other DHF staff members arrived: “everyone was ready. The people, mainly youth and women, are aware of what they have, don’t have, need and want, and they are so active and strong about voicing their needs.”

Recently, Marie embarked on the difficult journey of ensuring that DHF services were being provided to extremely isolated communities, including Tshamaka in eastern DRC. Traveling by boat, motorcycle, and on foot to the different project sites, Marie and the team established what was needed in terms of infrastructure and supplies. Remote communities like Tshamaka previously couldn’t store vaccines on site because they had no way of preserving them. “They now have a certified fridge for vaccines,” Marie explains, “the maternity clinic is the first building that has been constructed there since the colonial era – they call it The Jewel.”

Pregnant women and mothers in front of the newly constructed maternity clinic in Tshamaka, Obokote.

With regards to Goal #5, Gender Equality, Marie comments on how the empowerment of women through this initiative has been accepted within the communities, “although the family structure is pretty traditional, I was very pleased to see how the local mindset had progressed as a result of the community mobilization and awareness raising efforts.” She goes on to say, “the women understand really well what the benefits of family planning are to them. But we also want the husbands on board. We encourage the men to be more actively engaged in improving the reproductive health of their families as a whole, and they seem to be receptive and understanding of that.”

With Delivering Healthy Futures now in its fourth year, Marie can see the progress. Before the DHF project began, only 15% of pregnant women in the target communities were receiving necessary prenatal care. Now, that number has tripled to 61%. In just two years, 635 health workers, 120 community volunteers, 558 pregnant women, and 6,000 infants have benefitted from the program.

Marie is proud to have supported the existing mobilization efforts in the country. She is fueled by passion and awareness that programs like Delivering Healthy Futures are moving us towards achieving the SDGs. As she says, “Canadians are allies for a change that comes from within, by and for Congolese people.”

Photo & video credits: Marie Meloche & Bella Lam