Dr Wolfram Dressler gave a thought-provoking presentation at the Wits Rural Facility this February, on how conservation areas and their neighbouring populations interact and whether or not the ideas behind transfrontier conservation areas are really benefiting rural populations.
He concluded that the way the state is currently helping people in rural areas near parks is probably not actually in the best interests of the communities, and that rather than simply creating jobs, funds should be directed to help the people enhance their natural resource base.
The talk was given to students on their way to research projects in and around the Kruger National Park, and stimulated considerable debate. According to Dressler, this was precisely the result he was hoping to achieve. He says his study is by no means conclusive, but that he hopes to arouse more lateral thinking about how conservation should link up with impoverished communities.
Dressler is a post-doctoral fellow working with TPARI - the Transboundary Protected Areas Research Initiative. TPARI was formed a few years ago, and is an international network of researchers connected to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and several universities in South Africa, America and Europe.
It looks at protected areas that cross international borders, using the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park as one of its primary case studies. One of its main focus points is how protected areas and people interact. Dressler summarised the history of protected area management, from the feudal systems of the 1700s to the current development of conservation areas that cross national boundaries. He discussed the rise of community-based natural resource management in recent years, where local people have a much greater say in how natural resources are managed.
He went on to say that this is now being criticised by some field biologists and protected area managers, who blame local people who use natural resources for declines in bioldiversity. Some elements of community-based natural resource management are incorporated into the planning of southern Africa's transfrontier parks.
Dressler looked at whether, since the GLTP was declared in 2001, local communities have received any benefits from the management and sustainable use of natural resources in the GLTP or if they have participated in any of the management.
He says that currently "no coherent framework exists that enables local communities to participate in management." When looking at potential benefits from conservation, Dressler believes that those in charge of policy and planning are so far removed from the day-to-day life of the people that they are planning for that their plans do not really fit in with the rural people's lives.
The plans create jobs around the natural environment, and provide some rural people with a wage. However, many households trade more in the currency of the natural environment, using natural resources on a daily basis, rather than obtaining all their living requirements through spending money.
Looking at interactions between Kruger and the neighbouring community of Welverdiend, only about 10 percent of households in the village had attended meetings with Kruger staff. Political appointees, rather than ordinary people, meet with at the community development forums, and then only in the case of problem animals harassing the people or the people poaching the animals in the park. The issue of the status quo of the natural environment where the people lived did not feature.
Dressler points out that 60 percent of the villagers plant vegetables in home gardens or plots, despite very limited access to water, and says that "such investments in growing crops... does suggest that people value their resource base."
Dressler concludes, "Given local people's dependency on natural resources, why hasn't the state directed funds at having people work to enhance their resource base so that conservation doesn't only exist inside of protected areas. Humans are, after all, part of the natural landscape."