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Opportunity in Africa’s resource curse

By March 15, 2023Editorial

Damaraland, Namibia, where the Torra Conservancy is one of 86 community conservancies covering over 20% of the country’s land. Image: Paula French/Shutterstock

Conserving nature and the missed opportunities of Community-Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM).

Africa sits under a resource curse. Moreover, it is unrelenting, perpetually ensnaring our resources — renewable, non-renewable, and human too. How so? Well, wherever these resources are tapped, we often fall directly into the trap of overexploitation and corruption without foresight or investment in other resources that could support and sustain growth at economies of scale. Furthermore, although our natural resources are, for the most part, abundant and renewable, they are not finite. So, is there not a better development path? — one that protects biodiversity and the integrity of ecosystems while respecting people’s dignity, advancing their rights, and providing sustainable access to resources.

Four decades have passed since the advent of CBNRM. It began here in southern Africa, in my home country Zimbabwe. It was called CAMPFIRE and was the most significant conservation innovation of its time. Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources, to give it its full name, was a community-based natural resource management program in which Rural District Councils, on behalf of communities on communal land, were granted the authority to market access to wildlife in their district to safari operators. I like to think those instrumental in crafting and introducing this, and similar programs elsewhere, had high hopes for their great potential to benefit nature conservation and people. Yet now, nearly half a century since the start of the movement, and although we are more convinced of its morality than ever, we still question its sustainability and if it has a future on the continent.

Perhaps some historical perspective is helpful? In the wake of democracy and the liberation of sub-Saharan African nations, beginning with Ghana in 1957, countries began to recognize the imminent need for transformation in how natural resource management and conservation were practiced. The focal point was the need for resource sovereignty and development; having agency over natural resources was key to achieving this. Finally, it seemed African people rather than colonial powers would have a say in how wildlife resources could be used and benefitted from systematically. Essentially, people could own and manage their resources as governments devolved power to communities.

The creation of CBNRM programs followed the wave of independence in many African countries. In fact, in some instances, community sharing and participatory management activities had already begun in the lead-up to the liberation of these nations as a result of conservationists seeing the writing on the wall. After all, the very foundation of Africa’s subjugation under colonial rule was the assumption by European powers that they owned, controlled, and had unquestioned extraction rights over these resources. And so, for over a century, the continent was divided and ruled, and its people marginalized. Therefore it is no surprise that when African nations started to regain their independence in the early 60s, they were under-developed and their governance systems in their infancy, notwithstanding that they existed as organized civilizations for centuries before European colonization.

The environment was also set up for failure. Colonial tenure systems and land settlement programs had exacerbated unnatural pressures on landscapes with degradation as the consequence of overpopulation in some areas and preservation fencing (closing natural corridors) in others. Game reserve “fortresses” were set up and laws enacted, causing poverty in the adjacent areas and animosity towards the conservation enterprise, which, at the time, was an extension of the ruling colonial government. Liberation movements were not just wars for the dignity and freedom of African people but also for reclaiming sovereignty over resources and, subsequently, their destiny as “new” nations in the global community.

Rural areas and some African urban centers heavily depend on natural resources, that includes forests, wildlife, aquatic, marine, and land for agriculture. As Africa’s population grows, pressure on natural resources is bound to increase manifold. Communities in rural landscapes and those bordering protected areas will continue to bear the burden of conservation either as the opportunity cost to their livelihoods or as a hazard to their safety as more habitats are lost to human expansion. CBNRM is thus a better developmental model and compromise for conservation in Africa.

As a millennial African, I believe that, from its inception, CBNRM has had the potential and mandate to revolutionize benefit-sharing systems and renegotiate social landscapes of power between the marginalized and the oppressor on local and global levels. It held great promise for driving the sustainable development and industrialization agenda of African countries by curbing urban population explosions caused by human migration from rural settlements to the city hubs in pursuit of a dignified existence in the new urban Africa.

As society’s most disenfranchised populations — having borne the burdens of land dispossessions, overpopulation, and subsequent environmental degradation, liberation wars, and human-wildlife conflicts — rural communities deserved to be the focus and primary beneficiaries of CBNRM, not just because of their proximity to national parks but also the urgent need for their empowerment. However, the flip side was that CBNRM agreements were entered into on a vastly unequal education and knowledge footing, with stakeholders having very different motivations and targets in mind. Success may have looked very different from the perspective of the communities versus that of the conservationists. Yet, the language expressing the virtues of the programs was very much the language of the conservationists, so it seemed that the success of wildlife targets was the success of the communities. It was and still is not that simple.

Concerning nature conservation, it was good that the advent of CBNRM coincided with the increased global understanding of the impending climate crisis. The formation of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and landmark agreements such as the Rio “Earth Summit on sustainable development and the Kyoto Protocol all pointed towards international support for grassroots-level actions such as CBNRM. An important outcome of these conversations was the argument for the developed world to take responsibility and finance the resolutions and actions agreed upon in the fight against Global Warming and Climate Change. This direction in global discourse was not just an admission of the role of developed nations in polluting and damaging the atmosphere but also colonization in destroying the environment and impoverishing the developing world. It seemed that CBNRM was timely — almost a panacea for the environmental, political, and societal problems faced by the budding independent states.

Sadly, however, there is growing discontent with CBNRM here and abroad today. Even Namibia, the beacon and success story of CBNRM, has been unable to avoid recent attacks and increased scrutiny of its programs. Some commentators call it a failure with overstated success, essentially a front to perpetuate an unsustainable system. I believe CBNRM had great potential (and still does) but fell victim to the unimaginative and stagnant programs that sought to maintain previous ways of doing things. There has been a lack of innovation in CBNRM programs and thinking. As a result, insufficient revenue is generated to justify their viability beyond the moral value of giving back to Caesar what belongs to him.

Tourism, including trophy hunting, is the mainstay of how we fund conservation. These models are proving to be increasingly fragile in the face of global social change and unpredictable events like pandemics and natural disasters. When I was in Namibia in November 2021, the first groups of tourists were only beginning to trickle back since March 2020. They were Europeans, mostly German (former colonial power). The desperate tour operators I met were elated and could not hide their relief at returning to work. But their joy was short-lived. A few short weeks later, blanket travel bans were leveled against African nations due to the Omicron variant discrimination, thwarting the hopes of these and many other African businesses trying hard to build themselves back to pre-Covid volumes. This dependency on tourism demonstrated how, even in Namibia, where CBNRM has been successful and progressive, these community/conservation-benefitting programs are highly vulnerable. We need alternative financing mechanisms.

Conservation is an expensive enterprise, and, particularly in southern Africa, it still depends on the dollars of western hunting Namibia and travelers. The developed world, the customer, is king, and nowhere is this more evident than conservation. Thus, our approach to conservation design thinking and debates like the ever-polarising consumptive versus non-consumptive ones have long centered around pleasing our customers. Although African nations are liberated locally, on a global economic level, they remain subservient to their colonial masters. For African countries (and perhaps in some other parts of the developing world), their natural resource policy directions are discussed and informed by debates in foreign parliaments and the pulse of foreign social movements.

African leaders have failed us in many respects, including fostering trade within the continent. Africa is a youthful continent and is set to be the home of a quarter of the world’s population in the next 30 years. Still, instead of seeing this as an enormous opportunity, our business models appear to ignore this growing and relevant market. As conservationists, we need to re-design financing models for conservation to put Africans at the center of conceptualization, creation, implementation and utilization. Africans, too, are a viable market for goods and services from their own biodiversity economies. We should shift the perception of who should be the market for the appropriate goods and services fashioned by Africans for Africans as a sustainable and equitable economic model. This means for example, opening up travel routes so that people living in Africa don’t need to take several flights to reach an African destination that those in London, for example, can fly to non-stop. Further examples would be tailor-making (curating) travel experiences that target African travellers, and creating premium products aimed at African markets.

Another necessary shift in the conservation business model is focusing on the products we value and market. We ought to be flexible in our local natural economy models — natural resources are more than just wildlife for trophies or safaris. They are also forest products like fruits, medicinal plants, and even rocks. Most of these products are already being traded internationally from African countries that are, at times, the only ones producing them in the world but at a value that does not reflect this fact. Imagine if we supported local communities in building robust businesses around these precious commodities, did research to promote their valuation, made them market-ready, and gave communities equity for their involvement in these businesses. This is possible. Our products too can be world acclaimed like Swiss cheese and Scottish Highlands salmon.

In modern-day Africa, conservation programs must be beneficial and valued on three levels, the individual, the community, and the whole. Individuals are members of the public and their households. Tangible benefits from sustainable natural resources should flow down from these programs to people who can relate to them being made possible by such equitable programs. The community is the respective group of people in the rural districts who choose to participate in CBNRM. Community-level benefits are essential for lifting rural communities out of extreme poverty. Members of CBNRM projects should be able to see improvements in the status of their community’s needs (note, their needs, not just those of tourists). And finally, the whole — the country accepting CBNRM as an approach to conservation. The benefits of conservation programs should be visible and understood by citizens and government officials alike, both recognizing the individual and community-level rewards. Furthermore, citizens in urban and non-participating districts must see the value of these programs for the health of their country’s ecosystems and economic prosperity and continue to support equitable conservation programs with resolve and pride.

In the pursuit for the UN’s elusive Sustainable Development Goals, CBNRM programs can be a vehicle on which development programs are delivered to the most vulnerable of communities. This should not be an end to itself but only an ever-evolving path toward achieving a more equitable and prosperous future for all.

For decades we have seen the continent shift and change in many aspects. Resolutions and commitments have been made and implemented at different levels, but upward mobility for the general populace and those most in need has been abysmally slow. We now must reassess and interrogate the strategies and interventions taken on in post-colonial Africa and make the changes in thinking and action to achieve progress for everyone on the continent.

Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo is a Zimbabwean ornithologist, conservation leader and writer. She is currently a PhD student at the FitzPatrick Institute for African Ornithology based at the University of Cape Town. Nkomo is also a Mandela Rhodes Foundation alumnus, writes and consults for the Shannon Elizabeth Foundation, and is first recipient of the organisation’s One Woman’s Legacy Scholarship Fund.