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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mateus Mutemba: Ambassador for Conservation-based Prosperity

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Mateus Mutemba, the Warden of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

A spectacular national park in southeast Africa (4,000-square-kilometer/1,500-square-miles, slightly larger than Rhode Island), Gorongosa is located in central Mozambique’s Sofala Province. Historically, Gorongosa’s unique bio-geographical features supported some of the densest wildlife populations in Africa, but tragically the great herds and most of the other large animals were all but hunted out in decades of civil war.

Time has healed wounds and the remarkable wilderness at the southern tip of Africa’s famous Rift Valley has made an astonishing recovery, thanks in large part to the hard work of people like Mateus Mutemba and a determined team of local, regional and international partners. Leading conservationists, including Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson, scientific advisor to the park, consider Gorongosa to be the greatest restoration success in Africa — holding its own not only as one of the most biodiversity-rich protected areas in the world, but also as an engine (and role model) for regional prosperity.

Human Development Zone

As Warden of Gorongosa, Mateus leads the public-private partnership between the Government of Mozambique, the Greg Carr Foundation (an American charity that supports the restoration of Gorongosa), and the people living in the “Human Development Zone” around Gorongosa Park.

Credit: Gorongosa Media

Mateus and his colleagues have received global attention and praise for their successful restoration of the park, according to a Gorongosa news release proudly announcing Mutemba’s appointment as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. “Under his leadership, park infrastructure has been rebuilt. Tourism was re-opened and scientific facilities were built. An ambitious research and science education program was also launched. The wildlife recovery has been particularly impressive. In 2004, scientists counted less than 10,000 large animals during an aerial survey over the Park. But, in 2016, they counted almost 80,000 animals. In the last decade, Gorongosa has become one of the largest employers in Sofala Province, (employing around 500 people), an economic engine improving the lives of tens of thousands of people in the surrounding communities.”

National Geographic Voices interviews Emerging Explorer Mateus Mutemba:

Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What is your mission in life?

Credit: Gorongosa Media

I am an open-minded social person — open to the world, but with a strong sense of citizenship. I am family-oriented. When I am not working, I love spending time at home or out with my wife, Carmen, and our two daughters, Kaylane Luena and Khensile Akeelah. I like nature, the outdoors, traveling and attending cultural events. I find it fulfilling to work with people, especially in rural settings, especially when I see that with my work I can contribute to change their lives for the best.

My choice to work in rural development for the last 20+ years gives a meaning to my mission in life: Help others improve and achieve better chances to escape from the poverty trap through the sustainable use of natural resources, and better education opportunities paired with access to services and economic opportunities.

Working in Gorongosa where our mission focuses on protecting biodiversity and promoting human development is a great vehicle for this and makes me feel useful to my people and my country in this regard. I find very inspiring this quote from Nelson Mandela: “A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.”

What did you want to be when you were growing up? How did that change and why?

I always wanted to be a diplomat. Since I was a kid I was fascinated by the idea of traveling around the world, meeting different people and representing my country to other people and countries and to international organizations. I grew up admiring that world and I was inspired by examples of people whom I am close to, who were career diplomats. I am told that I am naturally gifted with the skill of diplomacy.

When I completed my Master’s in Public Policy, specializing in Development Administration, at the Australian National University in 2005, I nearly enrolled in a Master’s Program in Diplomacy and International Relations. A new Diplomacy course was about to start, but there was a one-semester gap between when I finished the Public Policy course and when the Diplomacy course was to start. With my Master’s in Public Policy it was easier to enroll and complete within a shorter period of time the Master’s in Policy and Governance because I could get credit for several courses. So I missed the opportunity to study and get a degree in Diplomacy and International Relations.

“I think oftentimes that I find myself playing the role of a diplomat in what I do on a daily basis.”

I think oftentimes that I find myself playing the role of a diplomat in what I do on a daily basis. Working in this unique public and private partnership entails a lot of diplomacy, connecting the bonds between cultural and biological diversity, building bridges between two worlds — sometimes even three worlds: international, local urban, and local rural. These are very distinct cultures that have in common the commitment to protect nature and promote human development.

Most of the work I do, either at organization level or relating to outside institutions and individuals, entails a big deal of diplomacy and tact in all I do. So, I feel that I am acting as a conservation diplomat and, maybe one day (when I retire from Gorongosa), I may resume my studies and acquire that degree in Diplomacy.

Credit: Gorongosa Media

Who were (are) your heroes and mentors? Favorite authors and filmmakers? Who would you most like to meet?

My heroes:

  • Nelson Mandela. I admire him for his vision, one that led to building a “rainbow nation” in South Africa, and also for his forward-looking view of the relationship between humankind and nature as summarized in his view that the sustainable future of humankind depends upon a caring partnership with nature. Mandela inspires me for his courage, intelligence, and his ability to sacrifice his own freedom (spending 27 years in jail) for a cause he believed in. Mandela was also a peacemaker, through reconciliation, like no other human being that I know of in our generation — and yet a very humble man;
  • Barack Obama. A very intelligent man, an informal and natural person, an eloquent speaker and person of integrity. I find his slogan “Yes, we can” a very transformative one. I would say that he lived up to that, and that changed the way people in the U.S. and the rest of the world see America, as a country of opportunity for all. For the same reasons, I admire his wife, Michelle. I would most like to meet the Obamas.

My favourite authors and filmmakers: Denzel Washington, Mia Couto (Mozambican biologist and writer), Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg .

My mentors:

  • Professor Yussuf Adam (Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique), my lecturer and thesis supervisor for my first degree. He introduced me to development studies and applied research and taught me life skills that guide me through my professional life.
  • Dr. Patrick Kilby (The Australian National University), my lecturer and master’s thesis supervisor. He taught me 2 courses and supervised my 20,000-word dissertation. Mastering and discussing theories and writing a thesis in a foreign language was a real pain to me. I would not have succeeded and scored a high distinction in my thesis without the support and motivation given by Professor Kilby.

How does Gorongosa function as a human development hub, and what is your role in that?

I have a deep understanding of the local communities: I joined the Gorongosa Project in January 2008 as the Director of Community Relations and served in that role until I  was appointed Park Warden in 2011. (I am also on the Board of the Gorongosa Project.) Since 2011, (re-elected in 2016 and 2017) I have served as Vice President of the General Assembly of the Foundation for Biodiversity Conservation in Mozambique (Biofundo), representing the Gorongosa Project.

Credit: Gorongosa Media
Credit: Gorongosa Media

With my background in community development, I have helped steer Gorongosa away from the traditional definition of a national park as a “conservation fortress” towards a more innovative, inclusive approach. Gorongosa spends about two-thirds of its budget outside the park — on human development programs — and the rest inside the Park on more conventional activities — such as law enforcement, science research and wildlife conservation.

The Park and its funding partners use Gorongosa as a human development hub to deliver long-term, large-scale health, education, and sustainable agriculture programs to the surrounding communities. In turn, local people are more likely to see the Park as an asset and an ally, avoiding activities that might threaten the park’s future such as illegal hunting and deforestation. In a mutually supportive feedback loop, our team uses Gorongosa to catalyze human development and protect wildlife and biodiversity at the same time.

Credit: Gorongosa Media

How do you feel about being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer?

It is a great honor to be named as one of 14 National Geographic Society Emerging Explorers for 2017. This is a tremendous opportunity and I am beyond grateful to receive this recognition along with such talented people from all over the world.

It has been an invaluable, very challenging, and yet rewarding experience to work within this Public and Private Partnership to manage Gorongosa National Park. I thank the Government of Mozambique, my wife Carmen and our daughters and my extended family, my tireless colleagues, local communities and all of Gorongosa National Park local and international public and private partner organizations for their commitment to our mission and for allowing me to grow and achieve this through the work we do together to protect this treasure of Mozambique and put it at service of the surrounding communities.

On this occasion, I remember again the visionary and yet inspiring statement by then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela at the opening of the 5th World Congress of National Parks in 2003: “A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else”.

What are the greatest opportunities for the rising generation of young people, and why?

Living in a generation of technology and information is a real asset. Young people should make the most of it to learn about the world and grasp as many opportunities they can to learn and break barriers of prejudice and intolerance. This is the challenge we face in our world today.

What is the best story you tell about yourself, a lesson learned, or a memorable (scary or thrilling) experience in the field?

Scary moment was 3 years ago when I nearly stepped on a 3.5-meter [more than 11 feet] black mamba. I was literally less than 30 centimeters [a foot] from it. Luckily, the snake got scared and moved away from me very fast to a distance of around 5 meters [16 feet], then reared up in attack position. Thankfully, I was already no threat to her and she retracted and proceeded on her way. That was perhaps the scariest experience I had in the bush out of other scary moments.

What is your favorite species, and why? Your favorite place on the planet?

Sable antelope is my favorite animal. Not only because it is an endangered animal in most places on Earth but also because of its beauty, with a rotund, barrel-chest, short neck and a long face and long curved horns (40 to 65 inches long). They resemble horses and are just beautiful animals to see in the miombo forest where they like to stay. I particularly like to see the males in their gallop with the arched horns expressing their manifestation of dominance.

My favorite place in the planet: Benguerra Island, in Mozambique.

What are your fears and hopes for the future?

Fear: That the greed of humankind, and a development that is not balanced with nature, may lead to depletion of most of the remaining natural areas in the world, that one day my great-grandchildren may not have the chance to see a lion or a sable antelope in the wild.

Hope: There is a growing awareness of the importance of nature amongst educated youngsters. I hope more and more of them will embrace conservation careers to help proper development planning and raising society awareness of the importance of using sustainably natural resources we have around us. As said by Mandela, “the future is, after all, in the hands of the youth”.

Tell us something that most people may not know about you?

I like cooking for the family when I am home.

What is one thing you would really still like to see or do?

Take my wife to visit Rome, Italy.

Credit: Gorongosa Media

Being named National Geographic Emerging Explorer is not the first international honor for Mateus Mutemba. In January 2017, he shared the stage with Greg Carr (President of the Carr Foundation) when each of them received the Good Steward Award from the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) in Washington, D.C. in recognition of their conservation and human development leadership in Gorongosa. In 2013, Mateus was honored as “Conservation Hero of the Year” at the 36th “International Wildlife Film Festival” in Montana, U.S. Again in 2013, Mateus also received a Merit Award from the World Organization for Families (WFO), in recognition of the work carried out with the communities of the buffer zone of the Gorongosa Park.

Mateus was born in 1972 in Maputo. He graduated in 1997 from University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo with a degree in History. His postgraduate studies were at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where he completed a Graduate Diploma in Development Administration in 2004. He completed a Master’s in Public Policy, specializing in Development Administration at the ANU in 2005. In addition, he studied Protected Area Management at the University of Montana, U.S. in 2009.

 

Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.