"Those are memories my children won't have," the father of four told The Associated Press, expressing fears that his work to save the forests may have started too late.
Ngongo won the Right Livelihood Award on Tuesday "for his courage in confronting the forces that are destroying the Congo's rainforests and building political support for their conservation and sustainable use."
A New Zealander, an Australian and a Canadian also won for working to rid the world of nuclear weapons, improving women's health in Africa and raising awareness of climate change. The awards were founded by Swedish-German philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull in 1980 to recognize deeds he felt were being ignored by the Nobel Prizes.
Ngongo said by telephone from Kinshasa, Congo, that his award comes at a "great time," as negotiators prepare to meet in Copenhagen in December to draft a global climate pact.
He founded an environmental group in 1994 that exposed the impact of deforestation and monitored the plunder of minerals by warring factions during Congo's 1996-2002 civil wars. He also has been a political consultant for Greenpeace since the international group opened an office in Congo last year.
Ngongo said his award, to be presented in December, "is a clear message that the campaign ... is starting to be heard around the world" and shows increasing awareness that the disappearance and degradation of forests contribute to climate change.
The 48-year-old Ngongo said school vacations he spent in eastern Congo's Virunga National Park inspired him to study biology. The forests provided food and shelter and were the setting for traditional religions.
"The forests aren't just trees," he said. "They are a way of life."
Greenpeace International Executive Director Gerd Leipold praised activists like Ngongo.
"While we hope President Obama turns his Nobel Peace Prize into real action for climate protection at this December's United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, it is people like Rene Ngongo who have already started the heavy lifting," Leipold said in a statement.
Alyn Ware, a peace activist from New Zealand, was recognized for "initiatives over two decades to further peace education and to rid the world of nuclear weapons."
"I'm very happy and I think it's a tribute to the wonderful people that I'm working with on a number of projects for peace and disarmament," Ware told the New Zealand Press Association from his base in New York. "I think they've given it to me because I'm working with a number of projects that are advancing peace education in schools and the community, and working on the practical ways to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons."
Australian-born Catherine Hamlin, 85, also won the award for "restoring the health, hope and dignity of thousands of Africa's poorest women."
Hamlin moved to Ethiopia from Australia in 1959 to work as an obstetrician and gynecologist. She and her late husband founded a hospital where women can seek free treatment for obstetric fistulas _ holes that can develop between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum during long and difficult births. They are common in developing countries where prenatal care is limited. Women with fistulas often have stillborn babies.
"I am very excited, it's very good for the work. I don't want it for myself but I want it to make the world aware of this need for these women," Hamlin told the AP in Sydney, where she arrived Wednesday to visit family.
"All over the developing world these women are suffering, and it's really a terrible thing that it's the 21st century and people are not worried about it. Every year 500,000 women are dying in childbirth, or they are injured having obstructed labors. So this is really what I am trying t tell the world, that we should be pouring money into this work. It's a preventable injury."
Ngongo, Ware and Hamlin each will receive euro50,000 (US$74,000), the Right Livelihood Foundation said.
The honorary part of the award _without prize money _ went to Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, 73, for raising awareness of climate change.
The awards will be presented in a ceremony at the Swedish Parliament on Dec. 4, six days before the Nobel Prizes are handed out.
AP Writers Louise Nordstrom and Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Rohan Sullivan in Sydney contributed to this report.
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