CONFLICT RESOLUTION I’m visiting Hong Kong for The Brazzaville Foundation. Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of the Congo and the foundation is an organisation dedicated to peace and conservation in the widest sense. The foundation follows on from the Brazzaville Accord in 1988, which brought about the peaceful settlement of conflict in Southern Africa and secured the independence of Namibia. The accord also paved the way for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the end of apartheid.
Our aim is to try to achieve peace by developing regional and cross-border initiatives. The man behind the foundation, and its chairman, is Jean-Yves Ollivier. In 1987, he was responsible for a prisoner swap in Africa of about 180 Namibians and Angolans. It was executed in the middle of the night under conditions of great danger and at great personal risk. The prisoner swap prepared the ground for the Brazzaville Accord.
Ollivier decided 25 years later (18 months ago) to reveal himself, having always been reluctant to attract publicity. Much of what the foundation does is confidential and conducted under conditions of extreme sensitivity and delicacy. At this moment, we are helping to defuse a serious political crisis in Africa. We’re not in a position to reveal any of the details yet.
INTO THE BLUE Recently, at the COP22 climate-change summit in Marrakesh, we helped to launch the Congo Basin Blue Fund. The Congo Basin holds about 8 per cent of the world’s forest-based carbon and covers 11 countries. The fund will help these countries shift from forest economies to river economies.
We aim to aid sustainable development and bring about peace through cooperation with all countries with environmental, wildlife conservation and water issues. There’s a link between peacekeeping and wildlife conservation. In a continent such as Africa, where there is a great deal of conflict and poverty, the habitats of animals suffer greatly. If we can bring peace, it also assures the continued well-being, not to say existence, of the wild animals.
The Congo Basin Blue Fund is also working to reduce global warming and the ivory trade, as well as easing migratory pressure in West Africa.
REFLECTING ON AFRICA I first went to Africa in the late 1960s. My wife, however, has a longer standing connection. She lived in Mozambique for some time with her family, growing up. Her father was passionate about wild animals. My wife (Princess Michael of Kent) took charge of a cheetah cub that had lost its mother. My father-in-law said to her, “For goodness sake, don’t get too attached to this animal because at some point you’re going to have to let it go into the wild.” As a result, she learnt a lot about the behaviour, mentality and all the various aspects of the life of a cheetah. My wife is currently writing a book about cheetahs, and is actually a writer of history. She had to drag herself away from writing about France in the 15th century to do this book.
Africa is a very easy place to become passionate about. The whole sensation is of the wide open spaces, the fact that, on the surface at least, nothing has changed for thousands of years. However, of course from the point of view of the conservation of wildlife, it’s a very different story. The link between the poaching situation and organised crime is now well known, and the situation is becoming unfortunately worse rather than better.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE My maternal grandmother was Russian; she died before I learnt to speak the language fluently as an adult. (On his father’s side of the family, Prince Michael is related to the last tsar, Nicholas II. The emperor was the first cousin of three of his grandparents, including Britain's King George V.) I’ve spoken Russian in all sorts of corners of the world: Africa, the Middle East and in places where you’d least expect it. I also look for a much deeper understanding of the Russian mind.
The West has been slow to appreciate the way Russians think. I think the language is a psychological barrier. It’s a wonderfully rich language but it takes a little application to learn it. Without being able to read it and understand it, it builds a wall of doubt and suspicion, and that is something which, as a Russian speaker, I’d very much like to dispel. Because whatever the situation, if you have difficulties between two people or, in this case, another country, the one thing you have to do is keep up a dialogue. You have to put yourself into other people’s shoes and learn what drives them.
I have a theory about the Russian language and the Chinese language: they are both so unbelievably complex – probably Chinese even more so – in order to say the simplest thing, you have to compose your thinking before you utter in a way that you don’t in English, for example. If you learn a language, you get under the skin of other people. One can always learn a lot if you take the top off.
TAKING AIM IN SEK KONG l have visited Hong Kong for all sorts of reasons; charity and business. It has many happy memories for me and I’ve seen it in all sorts of guises. I came here for the first time in 1970, when I was in the British army. I was up in Sek Kong, in the New Territories. The British army had a squadron of about 12 tanks based in Sek Kong. Somebody had to come every year and prepare them. They had a range where we fired our guns. The range had a very narrow path of fire. If you went a little bit too far to the left, your rounds went into the sea. That tended to improve one’s accuracy.
FINGER ON THE PULSE Whenever I come back to Hong Kong, I look forward to the beat of it. In spite of all of the things that have happened since 1970, and then the handover, I feel the atmosphere is very much the same in the sense of being a tremendous source of energy. It was a different era when I first came, but it’s a very grown-up part of the world.
I remember coming to open a convention centre in the late '80s. They had a ball there, it was a charity evening. They converted this brand new and very stark concrete building into something that looked as it if it had come straight from Vienna. There must have been 100 couples, all Chinese and all waltzing beautifully. I remember being struck that night by the cross-cultural nature of Hong Kong.