A Conservation Conversation

Photos taken in the Limpopo National Park, Mozambique
Picture Gallery

By Rael Loon
In Greater Transfrontier Conservation Area


In South Africa there is an increasing focus on communities living adjacent to protected areas. ‘People' issues are slowly becoming as important as ‘Park' issues in the relatively recent field of Community-based Natural Resource Management. The general ‘model' in this context is that ecotourism activities in the protected area provide for benefits to communities, for example through employment and sustainable utilization within the protected area.

These activities then allow for conservation objectives to be fulfilled. Conservation (as opposed to preservation) can be defined as the wise use of natural resources. One needs to emphasise the word ‘use'. Conservation economic theory clearly differentiates between different types of usage of natural resources.

These can include Direct Use such as through consumption or hunting or Indirect Use such as photographic safaris. Then there is what is referred to as Non-use values (or existence values) such as the satisfaction of knowing that a rare population of animals is alive. The point is that in Africa, the economic argument that wildlife needs to justify itself economically in order to survive, is a very strong and real one.

It is very easy for people to sit in their armchairs at home and criticise the way animals are mistreated, as was reported in a recent edition of the Sunday Independent (‘cruelty to one is cruelty to all'). Agreed, this may be true and treated with condemnation.

However, it would benefit many more people if such sentiment were translated into activities in the' wild', where the vast majority of animals occur and where ‘human poverty and inequality' can be addressed and directly linked to the way we manage these animals. For example, take the vast and expansive Greater Kruger Transfrontier Conservation Area.

For the first time, the needs of certain of the neighbouring communities bordering this protected area are receiving the attention they have been calling out for, for years. It is still early days and much needs to be done, but on paper, at least, the region has for example been zoned for different activities from untouchable wilderness areas to private concessions, national/public access, buffer regions with certain economic activities and tentative community/SANParks partnerships.

The much-cited Makuleke Concession between the Levhuvu and Limpopo Rivers, is a working partnership between a private concessionaire (Wilderness Safaris), National Park  (SANParks/Kruger) and a local community (the Shangaan speaking Makulekes).

The above is an example where Ecotourism activities (essentially viewing and taking photographs of animals) are contributing to community empowerment through employment and other benefits, and this is furthering conservation objectives.

Similarly, the private game reserves to the southwest of the Kruger such as the Sabi Sand, Manyeleti and the Associated Private Reserves to the north employ a large number of people who reside in the Shangaan communities bordering these reserves. The aim is that tourism should be integrated into overall community objectives.

This integration should be goal orientated and democratic. The challenge here is to forge a direct link between development initiatives and conservation initiatives. Often the link is there in theory but in practice is more difficult to prove. Community participation in ecotourism development is one means of establishing such a link.

Local Participation

Participation ideally means the ability of people to share, influence or control design, decision-making, and authority in development projects and programmes which affect their lives and resources. This should translate into people who live in the area being fully involved in definining the problems and the feasible solutions, and in selecting the remedies, designing the work, allocating responsibilities and sharing in the beneifts. The problem with local participation is that it depends on the presence of strong and representative local institutions for it to be effective.

Transparency, accountability, democracy and good governance is required, but such conditions are rarely present in real life. This makes it difficult to implement successful development programmes. Therefore, bridges need to be built, both literally and figuratively, in order to connect People more directly with Parks in a win-win partnership that effectively links Conservation and Development objectives.

As the well-known adage goes, one should empower people how to fish rather than only ‘handing them out'. If such Empowerment of the communities adjacent to the Greater Kruger Park is the goal, then there maybe progressive steps to get there.

For example, initially by engaging and consulting with the respective communites and gathering information, one can identify the perceived problems and ascertain what the priority needs are. Next one can attempt to find opportunities for funding which could lead to material benefits in one form or another, by linking into broader projects or integrating the specific project with similar projects and into local and national government programmes.

At this stage the project may begin functioning by striving to achieve preset goals and objectives. This should lead to interactive participation by the respective community with the development agency or project leaders.

Once the community reaches this stage, participation can be said to be active, and perhaps the elusive and difficult to measure goal of empowerment could be reached. (The recent book: "Measuring Empowerment - Cross disciplinary perspectives" Ed, Deepa Narayan, published by the World Bank, Washington, 2005, contains a relevant chapter on measuring empowerment at the community level).

At the onset of the Peace Parks Foundation Initiative the World Bank had infact originally earmarked several communities within three broad regions for action along the Mozambiquan border with Kruger; Maputo in the South; Gaza Province in the central region and Chimanimani on the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border in the north.

Other organisations and development agencies such as the the Transboundary Protected Areas Research Initiative (TPARI) are taking the initiative in this regard by also addressing the Mozambique side of the People/Parks puzzle.

Clearly, much progress has been made, which is evidenced in the recent proclamation of the Limpopo National Park (formerly Coutada 16), which has been incorporated into the Greater Kruger Transfrontier Conservation Area. The needs of a number of Shangaan communities adjacent to the former  ‘Banhine' and ‘Zinhave' protected areas such as Makendenzula and Catina are in the process of being addressed through the activities of these and other development agencies.

TPARI is a interdisciplinary network of researchers and institutions and a number of post-graduate research projects addressing certain pivotal issues relating to Transboundary Initiatives have been set up by this Initiative.TPARI runs under the auspices of the IUCN South Africa and is supported by the Centre for  Integrated Study of the Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carnegie Mellon University by way of a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The Initiative focuses on transboundary protected areas as coupled human-environment systems that operate across scales and boundaries, and are addressing several pertinent research questions relating to this important debate.

It should be noted that often communities adjacent to protected areas are indifferent to conservation or even see it as a threat, as they were excluded from these areas in the past. Also whereas conservation authorties on the ‘Parks' side of the fence think in terms of long-term conservation goals and objectives, the communities are often acting on a day-to-day survival struggle, seldom having the luxury to think in terms of the preservation of nature. For example, water supply, unemployment, lack of food security and the erosion of family and child rights typify these communities.

It is important therefore, to attempt to address these needs first coupled with conservation awareness programmes which can demonstrate the values of conservation thereby improving these communities' attitudes to conservation. The elephant culling debate has been very topical of late and has fueled an emotionally charged debate involving dozens of different stakeholders, all with their own stance and standpoint.

Ethical arguments against killing elephants and raising cruelty to animals have been raised. On the other hand extensive research into impacts of elephants on biodiversity and elephant management options advocating sustainable utilisation have been conducted. While the public eagerly awaits the results of the recent ‘experts' consultation process, it is becoming clear that it is unlikely that there will be a ‘black and white' announcement of the decision to cull.



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