How to respond to ‘drought’: rethinking standard approaches

Over the last four weeks, a blog series has asked what is the best way to respond to ‘drought’? This is an important question for a country like Zimbabwe, and with climate change the question will become even more important. The answer though is not obvious.

First we need to define what is drought in a way that is meaningful to local contexts, going beyond a conventional ‘meteorological’ definition with a focus on rainfall to thinking about the outcomes of multiple, intersecting factors.

Second, we need to understand how farmers respond to rainfall variability, and think about ways of supporting their own practices.

Third, we need to question the quick-fix temptations of technical, external solutions to drought – whether insurance or the whole paraphernalia of early warning, anticipatory actions and social assistance programming – as they frequently incorrectly assume that drought can be managed as a calculable risk (anticipated, predicted and planned for), when in fact we don’t know what the future holds, and uncertainty, even ignorance, prevails.

Finally, this has implications for how responses to droughts and disasters more generally are framed – not as singular events that can be predicted, managed and controlled, but always as uncertain, unfolding processes, where different responses are required, centred on building reliability through new forms of practice and professionalism.

Together these four themes are quite a radical challenge to the standard approaches to social protection, disaster risk management and humanitarian assistance. However a shift from a technical, externally-driven approach to risk management and control to one that starts from understanding local responses to uncertainty and how reliability can be generated in the face of highly variable conditions is one that needs to be taken seriously. This requires some major rethinking of how standard programmes are designed and implemented.

So if you missed the series, here they are again.

What is drought? Local constructions, diverse perceptions

Farming with variability: mobilising responses to drought uncertainties in Zimbabwe

Insuring against disaster: the politics of protection

Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

A sad post-script

This week we learned of the tragic loss on June 5 of Alex Magaisa from a cardiac arrest at the age of only 46. It is a terrible loss for Zimbabwe’s intellectual and activist community. In addition to being a law lecturer at the University of Kent in the UK, Alex was an avid writer and his Big Saturday Read gained a huge following. Although we didn’t always agree, his analyses were always stimulating and provocative and links to his writings regularly appeared on this blog. As a public intellectual, challenging the status quo through well honed arguments, always well written, Alex’s contribution to debate about Zimbabwe’s future was vital. He will be sorely missed.

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Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

Previous blogs in this series have highlighted how farmers’ responses to ‘drought’ are focused on adaptive adjustments to farming and livelihood practices that unfold as a ‘performance’. A drought is not a single event, but emerges over time, and responses are not singular or time-defined, but continuously evolving.

Farmers’ responses are therefore ones attuned to uncertainty – where future outcomes are unknown – rather than risk – where future events can be predicted, forecast or anticipated. However, most external interventions are, as we have seen in respect of sovereign insurance in the previous blog, framed by a risk and control mindset.

A whole paraphernalia of approaches are now central to ‘disaster risk management’ approaches and part of humanitarian responses. With various technical inputs and sophisticated models, they assume that droughts can be predicted, early warnings offered and insurance pay-outs provided to prevent disasters happening.

There is a growing confidence it seems in predictive models, centred on approaches such as ‘anticipatory action’ as well as parametric/index insurance of different sorts. This confidence is boosted by a belief that increased access to information from satellite imagery, ‘big data’ analysis, machine learning and so on can improve the predictive power and calculative capacity of such mechanisms. The UK’s new ‘international development strategy’, for example, is replete with such techno-optimist claims.

But what if such approaches, now so central to the humanitarian and aid machine, don’t work or only do so partially because of prevailing uncertainty and ignorance? And, as discussed in an earlier blog, even if predictions are made, will farmers’ believe in and act on them?

The long history of early warning systems in Africa suggests that problems of data availability and credibility will remain. As Margie Buchanan-Smith and Susanna Davies (now Moorehead) argued back in 1994, “Improved capacity to predict drought‐induced famines has not led to a concomitant improvement in famine prevention.”

From managing risk to generating high reliability

Instead of relying on technical fixes that assume risk, what if a different approach was adopted, one that started by embracing uncertainty, not pretending that we can predict and plan, even with improved knowledge? Could farmers’ responses, based on sequential adaptation, learning and flexible responses help us rethink approaches to drought and disaster response?

Our recent open access paper in Development Policy ReviewProviding social assistance and humanitarian relief: the case for embracing uncertainty – chimes very much with the Zimbabwe experience. As we argue, rather than blaming failures on poor models, implementation gaps, targeting errors, exclusion by design, lack of co-ordination, poor governance and sometimes vague, black-boxed notions of political economy, an alternative approach that genuinely embraces uncertainty is proposed. Based on case material from Ethiopia and Libya (but could as well have been Zimbabwe or nearly anywhere…), it suggests four challenges for humanitarian and social protection efforts addressing uncertain disasters.

Skills, practices and capabilities — If uncertainties cannot be planned away, then systems require the continuous capacity to spot uncertainties, address surprises and avoid areas of ignorance. This requires horizon-scanning, thinking about the longer-term future, as well as being aware in real-time of unfolding situations on the ground. Drawing on work on ‘critical infrastructures’, we show how networks of ‘high reliability professionals’ – including farmers, government officials and aid agency staff based in the field – can act as brokers and translators, linking and negotiating multiple sources of knowledge. Identifying such networks and building their capacity should be central to investment in disaster responses, we suggest.

Organisational change — The sort of flexible, adaptive learning by high reliability professionals in turn needs to be embedded in organisations, incentivised and rewarded. A more modular organisational arrangement, with decentralised, networked decision-making can facilitate a more nimble, responsive action, we argue. Building in redundancy means that organisations can change gear quickly and have the flexibility to respond. Allowing for innovation, as well as learning from and sharing this, is essential. The cumbersome, hierarchical organisation of standard governmental or development/humanitarian agencies therefore has to be rethought.

Financing mechanisms — Standard approaches to financing in disasters are notoriously poor at addressing uncertainties. Single, predictable funding pipelines linked to fixed budgets, planned according to defined risks and negotiated on assumptions of stability and uniformity are inadequate for unpredictable shocks and surprises. Appropriate financing mechanisms to respond to uncertainty include contingency funds, advance commitment funding and contingency credit arrangements, linked to emergency funding reallocation systems. Under conditions of uncertainty we argue that this must go beyond standard index insurance systems as well as anticipatory risk planning and pre-shock identification of the most vulnerable. We equally must not assume the existence of effectively functioning state delivery systems and infrastructure. Instead, more hybrid, ‘mutual’ approaches that build on local response systems, but are combined with focused, strategic external financing offer a way forward.

Accountability relations – Too often in disaster responses, accountability relationships run upwards. Vertical monitoring, evaluation and audit control systems follow. But, if accountabilities are extended downwards and outwards, then other participants become involved. Those delivering and receiving social assistance and relief are as a result no longer just passive recipients, but are actively involved in the response, operating through locally-embedded networks, connecting implementing agency professionals with so-called beneficiaries. If networked arrangements and horizontal accountabilities are built in from the start, a more collectively-owned approach for high reliability, based on combined knowledge and action can emerge, we suggest.

Rethinking disaster responses, why embracing uncertainty is essential

A focus on uncertainty therefore shines a particular light on incomplete (or absent) knowledge about the future, where standard techniques of prediction, anticipation and preparedness don’t work. An acceptance that uncertainty and ignorance are central fundamentally undermines our capacity to plan, manage (even adaptively), and so ensure stable, predictable and targeted outcomes. This has profound implications for the mainstream, risk and control oriented approaches to disaster response, especially in settings affected by crisis and conflict and where state capacity is weak (which is of course quite a lot of places, including of course Zimbabwe).

The paper concludes,

“Reversing patterns of accountability, incorporating new knowledges and actors, thinking about networks and encouraging systematic and reflexive learning all challenge.. standard approaches. Ignoring uncertainty—and not accepting inevitable ignorance and surprise—can be misleading, even downright dangerous. Standard risk-management approaches paper over cracks that can open up, causing major problems. Fixing these by arguing that all that is needed is better planning, implementation, correcting errors, and improving co-ordination does not deal with the core issue.”

Instead, the paper goes on,

A ‘high-reliability’ approach, which embraces and works with uncertainty and complexity, is needed. And this requires fundamental changes in everything from programme design, professional practice and skill-sets, organisational culture and incentives to funding, monitoring, and evaluation regimes.”

Without such a shift, the paper argues, the continued failures of aid and humanitarian interventions in disaster settings will continue. Embracing uncertainty means jettisoning now much-favoured tech-heavy approaches in favour of a more sophisticated, grounded, uncertainty-centred approach centred on generating ‘high reliability’ in real time. And to do this, learning from farmers, pastoralists and others who must always live with and from uncertainty will be essential.

This is the fourth blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first, second and third blogs here, here and here.

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Insuring against disaster: the politics of protection

One of the most popular responses to drought – and disasters more generally – by aid agencies today is insurance. This fits the current development mood, requiring market-based solutions that operate at a distance and work seemingly ‘efficiently’, offsetting the need for cumbersome, late responses of state or development agency delivered humanitarian aid.

It all sounds good in theory, but what is the reality? This was a theme we explored in Zimbabwe both in the field with farmers across our sites, as well as in Harare with some of those managing a new insurance approach for drought response, sponsored by the Africa Risk Capacity Group, and supported by multiple donors.

Many types of insurance  

Insurance comes in many shapes and forms. There’s classic indemnity insurance where if a disaster strikes an assessor will estimate the damage and pay out if you have a policy. This is the sort of insurance you have in case your house burns down or you crash your car.

Index-based insurance by contrast aims to pay out before the event happens. This provides early response and avoids the dangers either of later payment or of emergency responses that can undermine people’s livelihoods in the longer term. Here pay-outs occur if a threshold is crossed, say of rainfall or its proxy, such as vegetation cover. Index-based policies have become quite popular for agricultural and livestock insurance in developing countries, for instance.

A final type is sovereign insurance where a whole country takes out a policy against drought (or some other disaster) and the pay-out happens again if a threshold (the ‘attachment point’) is crossed (such as below average rainfall across the country, assumed to be affecting a certain number of people). This is aimed at ensuring ‘early action’ as part of an anticipatory approach to assistance, which again doesn’t have to wait for the mobilisation of international funds after the event.

Sovereign insurance: the Africa Risk Capacity model

This ‘sovereign insurance’ is what the government of Zimbabwe has recently bought from ARC (USD 2.5m) in partnership with the UN World Food Programme (USD 1.5m) and the START network (USD 2.5m) (a consortium led by international NGOs involved in humanitarian assistance with 20 members in Zimbabwe), who run ‘replica’ programmes paid for by international aid donors. The model will pay-out when an estimated 3.3 million people are affected (the attachment point), with a response cost of USD 154m, and so is designed for a major national disaster not for regular responses to food insecurity.

However, the ARC approach, which is an African Union initiative, with separate development and commercial arms, has had a chequered history. For example, in 2016 the insurance failed to pay out in Malawi during what was clearly on the ground a disastrous drought. In the end an ex gratia payment was made, but the approach was seriously critiqued – a damning Action Aid report argued that this was the wrong model for improving resilience. Despite its many promoters in the aid agencies, the ARC lost credibility and there was a period when it looked like it would collapse with insufficient country subscribers and too little funding to reinsure. A preliminary evaluation by OPM suggest some major flaws, particularly in the way the underlying ‘AfricaRiskView‘ model was constructed.

Since then, there have been multiple efforts at improving the system and customising the underlying model. Zimbabwe has bought into a very different operation, with the model being calibrated with local information through a committee, led by the Ministry of Finance, with many experts from the ministry of agriculture (Agritex) as well as aid agencies and NGOs. Although the details of the model are secret – they are proprietary information of the commercial arm of the ARC, and the basis on which it presumably gears a profit from its assessment of risks – there is clearly more local participation and transparency than before. Those who have premiums invested can monitor the progress through the season, assessing if a pay-out is likely.

The implementing agencies, whether government, the WFP or the START network, must come up with a contingency plan for how they will deliver assistance in case a pay-out is made. The current policy aims to reach up to 800,000 people in drought-prone districts if a full pay-out occurs. This is supposed to mean that things can happen quickly and before the worst impacts of a disaster strike.

Contingency plans currently involve the usual array of targeted interventions, with all the problems that these entail, but the principle of early action and rapid response is definitely a good one; although such plans need to be held in place and updated in all the years in between pay-outs (the ARC deal for Zimbabwe expects, but doesn’t guarantee, a one in four year pay-out; the assumed ‘return period’).

Practical concerns

How will it work it practice? This is the first year with the latest round of insurance, so the simple answer is we don’t know. Past experience is limited in Zimbabwe, as there has only been one payment from a previous round in mid 2020 of USD 1.4 million to the government and around USD 300k to WFP (as the replica premium holder) following the poor rains of 2019-20.

As one senior official from a humanitarian agency observed, such pay-outs are all well and good, but they are a drop in the ocean. When hundreds of millions of dollars are required across over 8 million food insecure people and maybe 1.8 million in dire need, then the premiums required to cover this would be enormous, and way beyond any agency or donor, let alone the government (even though of course the ‘food insecurity’ figures may be dubious). For example, under the new policy WFP’s maximum pay-out would only be USD 6.5 million; hence people referred to the approach as a ’boutique experiment’, with varying doses of scepticism.

Other commentators we talked to were intrigued by the system, desperate to find a new way of doing things given the failures of the standard approaches but wondered whether a profit motivated company could really deliver funding for humanitarian assistance through global reinsurance markets. Should insurance brokers be making money out of disasters? For the humanitarians this was a difficult one, even if it worked (which was not sure).

There were many other debates about the practicalities and questions were still raised about the underlying model. For example, it focuses on maize as the indicator crop, but what about in areas where sorghum or other crop mixes are important? What about livestock? It was unclear if the model differentiated between different soil types – the impact of rainfall deficits is massively different between sandy and heavy soils, for example. The idea of a ‘sovereign’ drought given the variability of patterns across the country seemed odd to others. How can a single-cut off for the whole of such a diverse country be decided? And how can a single point be defined, when drought always evolves through the season?

As the next seasons unfold (the premium has been paid over several years), we will see how it pans out. A key issue for any index type insurance (where predictive risk indicators are used and actual damage is not assessed post hoc) is the question of what is called ‘basis risk’: the difference between the predictions and the actual outcomes.

If this is large (as was the case in Malawi in 2016), then the insurance pay-outs are not geared to need, and the product becomes ineffective. Those who pay the premiums or expect pay-outs rightly object and in an increasing number of cases, ex gratia pay-outs are made, effectively acknowledging the failure of the calculative risk model.

Even though the ARC model has been improved, there are plenty of reasons to expect significant basis risk, given what we know about drought in Zimbabwe (see previous blogs here and here).

From risk to uncertainty: basic challenges to insurance as a solution to disasters

There are however some more fundamental issues with insurance as a response to uncertain disasters. The challenges are more than fixing the technical parameters and reducing basis risk and improving contingency planning and implementation.

Any insurance assumes you can calculate the probabilities of an event happening (or an index being triggered). This is the basis of setting premiums where the insurance company bets on incomes versus pay-outs based on estimates of the likelihood of trigger events/disasters happening. In other words, insurance is premised on assumptions about ‘risk’ – where you have a good idea of the probability of what is going to happen (a calculable, predictive approach) – but not ‘uncertainty’ – where you don’t know the likelihood of outcomes. Under conditions of uncertainty, insurance will not work.

By assuming risk, insurance creates particular political dynamics centred on strategies of management and control. As a result, most contemporary forms of insurance are based on a modernising, market-based vision of predictive control, generating forms of ‘governmentality’ over insurance ‘subjects’. In the case of the ARC’s sovereign insurance this is scaled across a whole nation, is exerted through an insurance company with links to the global insurance markets and is executed on the ground by the state, UN agencies or international NGO networks.

This is very different to the drought responses among farmers, discussed in previous blogs in this series, with radically different politics. As discussed in the previous two blogs, it’s uncertainty not risk that dominates the experience of drought in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere. This becomes more the case as climate change affects patterns of rainfall. Taking uncertainty seriously suggests a very different approach to disaster response.

An approach centred on uncertainty, rather than risk, would have to adopt the approaches used by farmers in the face of variable patterns of rainfall and uncertain drought conditions, described in the previous blogs. This would mean flexibility, adaptability, contingency planning and performative responses to unfolding circumstances (a theme picked up in the next blog).

This is less neat than the technocratic, market solution of insurance, and for large and cumbersome agencies may be impossible. But, in the end, an uncertainty-centred approach may be more effective and more attuned to the real world of uncertainty that characterises drought and disaster, as we argued in a recent paper in relation to humanitarian and social assistance more broadly.

Time will tell how the ARC sovereign insurance model fares in Zimbabwe. Maybe it can adapt and become the flexible, early response system taking account of uncertainties that is so needed. Watch this space for updates in the coming years.

This is the third blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first and second blog here and here.

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Farming with variability: mobilising responses to drought uncertainties in Zimbabwe

Climate change is generating greater variability within and across seasons. This is requiring new responses among farmers in Masvingo province in Zimbabwe. Today, farmers must adapt, be flexible and agile and respond to uncertain seasons as they unfold. This requires new skills and approaches; not just from farmers, but also from development agencies who are hoping to assist rural people cope with drought.

Shifting responses, changing droughts

There are strong memories of drought (or rather ‘nzara’, see previous blog) among farmers in Masvingo. During our visits earlier in the year many recalled past events. The 1991-92 drought was firmly etched on their memories, while older people recalled the droughts of 1982-84. These days the memories of 1947 (associated with the distribution of ‘Kenya’ yellow maize) are disappearing, but drought is a recurrent phenomenon central to how histories are recalled in rural areas, as we explored in our book Hazards and Opportunities over 25 years ago.

But how people have responded over time and how different ‘droughts’ have been experienced is highly contrasting. Some droughts are recalled as ones affecting cattle, but not people; others are the opposite. Some affected everyone all over the area, meaning real shortages of food and dependence on hand-outs, while others were quite localised and food could be purchased in nearby districts. As discussed in last week’s blog, drought is not a singular phenomenon.

One thing people mentioned again and again was that droughts today are so varied. It is not just a simple failure of ‘the rains’, but the problem of increasing variability. Sometimes there’s very heavy rain, then nothing for weeks. In the ‘old days’ rain – if it came – would be steady and continuous, soaking the land, they say. This is much more effective for crops than the rains today, when heavy rains can destroy crops through waterlogging and wind and rain damage.

As many climatologists have argued, it is not the absolute amount of rain that is changing with climate change, but its variability. This is certainly the experience in our Masvingo study areas.

Land reform and resilience

We were discussing with farmers in our A1 resettlement area study sites across Masvingo province, from the very dry south to the relatively wetter northern parts of the area. One of the common narratives that we heard was that today we don’t suffer from drought as much as we did before. This seemed to run counter to the arguments about climate change and the frequency of events that were recalled. Why was this?

The answer of course was that land reform has created a buffer against the effects of drought by providing more land with better soils and the ability to accumulate assets that can be used to improve agriculture and weather a lean period. Land reform was thus an impressive boost to resilience, although of course not usually discussed in those terms. This applies to nearly everyone as even those who have not managed to accumulate from agriculture significantly are able to gain farm employment from others.

However, even with larger areas of land and accumulated farm assets, smallholder farmers in the land reform areas must still learn to cope with the high levels of rainfall variability in order to avoid ‘nzara’. This requires skill and aptitude and some well-honed practices.

From prediction to performance

In the past, rainfall patterns were more predictable, forecasts for the season were sometimes reasonably good. There was a standard movement of the ‘inter-tropical convergence zone’ southwards and the nightly bulletins on TV would document its position. More broadly, historical analysis of climate records show a cyclical pattern of wetter and drier periods over around seven years over many decades that seem to suggest some type of pattern. This is no longer the case.

In our discussions, farmers pointed to their own forms of prediction that had been used in the past: certain types of bird being present, with certain calls; the flowering of particular trees; the formations of certain clouds; or the strength and direction of wind. These would provide short-term predictions of what might happen in the next days, but even these local prediction mechanisms frequently seem to fail these days.

As we sat in one farmer’s compound, the rain was pouring down only a kilometre away, but right there it was completely dry. This variability means a different response. Farmers were unanimous in their rejection of formal predictions, as being useless today – whether from the met department or from prophets or priests. “This is ‘fake news”, someone proclaimed, continuing, “if you follow it, you can make a serious error.”

What’s the alternative to following predictions? The answer nearly everyone gave was ‘planning’, being ready for any contingency. Having your seeds and fertiliser available, making sure you have a fit span of animals for ploughing, working out how you can divert if the rains failed – say from investing lots of effort in the ‘outfield’ to more focused, intensive gardening, where you can manage the soil, irrigate and so on.

During our discussions, lots of examples were given of how, during a highly variable season like the one being experienced, different strategies were pursued. This required flexibility, and of course resources (labour, inputs and so on) to be able to switch between options. This is the farming ‘performance’ that everyone must follow, where there are diverse scripts and different players.

This is very different to the standard packages or the technocratic solutions of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture. Even when these are useful, they must be adapted. The fertiliser recommendations from the extension workers must be changed to fit the season, even the micro-plot. As discussed in a recent blog, the no-till practice Pfumvudza must equally be changed, bigger or smaller pits, more or less mulch, extra ridges to divert water if there’s too much.

In the uncertain world of today, no one size fits all. Coping with drought and avoiding hunger requires much skill, and careful contingency planning.

Embracing uncertainty

As farmers have had to over the last decades in Masvingo, a shift in support more attuned to uncertainty rather than predictive risk will require new ways of doing things, as we highlight in a paper on rethinking humanitarian and social assistance in ‘crisis’ situations. Unfortunately, as discussed in the next blog, this is not yet happening.

As I discussed in a recent book chapter, perhaps these practices – centred on embracing uncertainty, living with and from variability – are the future, not the frequently rigid and standardised forms of humanitarian and social protection responses we see offered by the state or aid agencies. development agencies.

This is the second blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first blog here.

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What is drought? Local constructions, diverse perceptions

There is a huge government and aid machinery to respond to ‘drought’ in Zimbabwe. Humanitarian relief, cash-plus transfer schemes, shock-responsive aid, anticipatory action, insurance products, climate-smart development and much, much more, with millions of dollars spent. But what is ‘drought’, and how are different responses framed?

For some, drought is just a deficit in rainfall across a season – this is a meteorological framing, which mostly drives the formal responses, and assumes that drought is a defined risk, an event that can be easily understood, resulting in particular interventions (usually some combination of the list above).

But for others – including farmers – drought is much more complex, with interacting and highly context-specific causes, with diverse outcomes and impacts on livelihoods. This requires a much more attuned, flexible response, embracing this complexity.

Multiple causes of ‘drought’

A few weeks back, we were visiting our sites across Masvingo province – from Chikombedzi in the far south to Gutu-Chatsworth further north – and asked about ‘drought’. It was a topical conversation as the season (yet again) had been a strange one, with very uneven rainfall even if the totals were relatively high. This has made it very difficult to manage the season, with the stop-start rainfall. Everyone was hoping for some more rains, as the maize was wilting in the fields after a good start. Since then, some have been lucky, others not and there will be no crop to speak of.

Across our field sites everyone was therefore talking of ‘nzara’. This translates from Shona as ‘drought’, but it’s different to a meteorological definition; it’s more about the consequences, ‘hunger’. This is important, as there are many causes to the outcome of nzara, and this is what we ended up discussing.

Yes, lack of rainfall is important – but as people repeatedly emphasised it’s not the seasonal average but when and where rain falls within the season, as well as how effective it is. Does it simply run off from capped soils or does it soak in? Rainfall effectiveness for crop growth is very different on heavy clay soils as against sandy soils, and also different in valleys and on the uplands. The interaction between rainfall and agronomy, soils, topography and management of land is very specific, and one place (even one part of a farm) can be very different from another. This is why farmers universally rejected weather forecasts as being of any use, as conditions are so variable. 

But even if rain falls, farmers explained, there are a range of factors that influence crop production. With the same rain, one farmer can succeed, while others fail. Many referred to ‘planning’, being ready for eventualities and being able to adapt. This requires skill, intelligence and, above all, flexible labour and draft power. Others argued (always about others!) that some farmers were simply ‘lazy’, they didn’t care about their fields, were always at beer parties and did not attend to their farms. Some failed because they were old, without help, or ill or infirm. These social, health and psychological factors contribute to what the effects of ‘drought’ might be, they argued.

Material assets are important too. Those with draft power of their own can plough early and catch the rains; those with tractors are even better off especially in the larger land areas of the new resettlements. Those by contrast who had to hire or borrow or worse dig by hand were unable to respond to rainfall events so effectively. The same applies to fertiliser – those able to purchase fertiliser (now ridiculously expensive) or with access to manure, were able to achieve better yields, even with the same land and labour. Access to inputs of different sorts therefore is crucial to confronting ‘drought’.

The pattern of farming makes a difference too. The small-scale Pfumvudza plots that many have invested in – and backed by the government and NGOs as part of ‘drought relief’ and ‘climate-smart agriculture’ – have become an important part of the agricultural system of late. In the resettlement areas, these essentially garden plots are farmed intensively by hand and yield well, but provide in total only small amounts, while the extensive outfields need a different type of investment. Only if you have both can you provide enough food for sale and consumption and avoid ‘nzara’, our informants explained.

Adapting to uncertain contexts

As we discussed many years ago in the book, Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa, in the aftermath of the major 1991-92 drought, all of these factors – biophysical, social, material and more – all affect who wins and loses in a drought. In some instances, lack of rainfall wipes out everything for everyone (what some call a co-variate shock), but this is rare, as there’s usually a much more variegated outcome. There are – in the jargon – more idiosyncratic effects, with quite specific outcomes.

This is important, as the simplistic responses from the state and aid machinery often miss their mark, and why they have to be adapted to uncertain contexts, as we explained in a recent paper. This is why understanding how responses are mobilised by different people in different places is essential. This is the focus of the next blog in this short series.  

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Contested conservancies: livestock, wildlife and people in Laikipia, Kenya

To complement the recent series of blogs on conservation and development issues in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe, I thought readers might be interested in a recent piece I wrote for the PASTRES blog based on a visit to Laikipia in northern Kenya kindly facilitated by the Laikipia Forum. It includes some commentary on parallels but also differences with Zimbabwe. Read on…..

Across vast areas of relatively high potential rangeland in Kenya, advocates for conservancies proclaim the advantages of combining livestock and wildlife in integrated, conservation-oriented land uses, linked to tourism. This, it is claimed, has benefits both for biodiversity and wildlife protection, as well as for the local economy, with ‘community conservancies’ being the latest effort to expand the model out from the core private land of Laikipia into pastoral areas beyond.

Conservancies have emerged in Kenya as a new form of registered land use in this area over the last decade or so, now formalised through the 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Management Act. Building on successful experiments in combining livestock and wildlife land uses over many decades, the conservancy model is now central to a high-profile and well-funded push towards conservation in these areas, notably through the controversial Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).

Certainly, the Laikipia area is not only beautiful, but also has fantastic natural resources and during drought periods huge numbers of wildlife move down from further north in search of pasture and water.

Conservancies: mixing wildlife, livestock and tourism

Our short visit to just one conservancy was of course insufficient to get a full picture, but a number of themes nevertheless emerged.

Our hosts were one of the now relatively few white Kenyans who run a farm as a family business, first established in the 1963, immediately after Independence when the current owners’ father took over. The original farm was settled after the World War I, when the northern Maasai pastoral populations were removed from this area and solider settlers given land. However, it was only into the 1940s when a white settler rancher took over the land, assisted by Italian prisoners of war who helped build the infrastructure. Most ranches across Laikipia were established in a similar way, with white Kenyan settlers running cattle operations. However, over time, many such original settlers or their families have sold up and moved away.

Those who run conservancies these days are a mixed bunch, ranging from rich tycoons from the Middle East to eccentric, passionate conservationists from the US and Europe to families, such as our hosts, who have lived in these areas for generations. For some, the fantasies of living in ‘wild’ Africa, conserving endangered animals and enjoying sundowners around an infinity pool loom large. For some conservancies that don’t need to turn a profit Laikipia is the playground of a super-rich, but conservation oriented, eco-passionate, Western elite. Our hosts however were not of this type, and were much more grounded in the local context, necessarily having to make a living from the ranch; although with other income sources to supplement too, as the ranch income is insufficient to cover all costs.

The ranch covers a total of 15,600 acres (small by Laikipia standards; nearby Ol Pejeta covers over 90,000 acres), with most devoted to open rangeland, and 600 acres currently allocated to arable farming. The core business remains livestock production, focusing on producing high-quality breeds for live sale, both cattle and sheep. The land is ideal, with good grass and relatively high (on average) rainfall at 800mm per annum; although due to extraction of groundwater by upstream farming operations on the edge of Mount Kenya (mostly flowers and export vegetables), the rivers are not flowing as often as before. Breeding animals is a skilled, niche business developed over years through careful breeding and management. This offers greater returns than beef production, although they do lease land to NRT beef herds; currently only 150 head, but at times up to a thousand. These animals are bought up by the Trust in pastoral areas and fattened on conservancy land for later sale. Presented as a ‘development’ effort by NRT, it is essentially a commercial venture making use of plentiful land and cheap grazing leases in the ranches.  

The other activity on the ranch is a high-end tourism facility, which is run by another branch of rhte same family. With a limited number of exclusive chalets, with riverside game viewing, a pool and restaurant (which prepares dishes now featured in a beautiful, illustrated book), the lodge can attract tourists able to pay high daily rates (the ‘local’ rate was beyond our budget, so we stayed in Nanyuki!). This type of tourism, very much framed around sustainability and conservation efforts, is common across the conservancies.

With hunting banned in Kenya, non-consumptive wildlife uses are the only way to make money from the plentiful wildlife populating the conservancies, including all the ‘big five’ charismatic animals – with large herds of elephants trashing the trees. Yoga retreats, corporate meetings, wildlife safaris, bird watching and so on are all part of the packages offered. And the place was indeed amazing! While COVID had dramatically hit the international tourist market, ‘local’ tourists filled the gap (including Nairobi businesspeople, UN types and so on, all clearly with more cash than us researchers).

Relations with neighbours

The ranch we visited was not far from Nanyuki so had neighbours on ‘community land’ nearby. The contrast across the fence line was dramatic. On one side was plentiful grazing, open savanna and along the fence line expansive wheat fields, all beautifully laid out. On the other side was a barren, dusty selection of dwellings, with a few goats and some scrawny looking cattle around, and the odd irrigated garden for vegetables. It is no wonder that those living outside look over the fence enviously.

In this particular conservancy, the relations with the local community are seemingly relatively good. While not many people are employed on the ranch (around 50 on the livestock operation, and 25 at the lodge), some do come from the villages around, especially for temporary piece jobs (about 25-30 are employed on short-term contracts through the year). The local chiefs and other key people important in local politics are regularly invited for discussions on the ranch. Nevertheless, the area has to be guarded, a big fence is erected, a buffer zone of wheat fields has been planted and regular arrests take place as people break in to graze animals. Given the serious drought over the past few years, the ranch owners have allowed some people to bring their animals in on an informal lease grazing arrangement, but this is very selective, targeted at those who matter and can keep the peace.

Peaceful relations with neighbours is not always the case in the Laikipia conservancies. The shooting of Kuki Gallmann, owner of the vast Laikipia Nature Conservancy, in 2017 was a recent example of where poach grazing and land invasions turned to violence. Many stories surround this incident, including accusations of political interference in encouraging pastoralists to enter the area, but also a view that longer-term conflictual relations with neighbours did not help. Land incursions in Laikipia are a common event, especially during extreme drought periods, as today. They are also part of a cycle of populist electioneering tactics, where politicians can point to the vast lands and encourage armed pastoralists to take ‘their’ land, but without any real intention of following up. 

Contested land

In the weeks before visiting Laikipia, I had been in Zimbabwe. There are of course many resonances with the land story there. Similar settler colonial histories, a racialised pattern of land holding, populist political rhetoric about land access and a deep inequality in who has land, especially better-quality land. Having studied land reform in Zimbabwe over many years, seeing such vast areas in Kenya still under ‘white’ control was striking. How could this still be the case?

Conservancies have been used in Zimbabwe too as a route to assert land control, with the case being made that high-value tourism generates foreign exchange and that wildlife needs conserving in ways that under-funded national parks cannot. The bringing down of fences across vast areas, such as the Save Valley, occurred in Zimbabwe from the late 1980s, part of what many thought was a tactic to offset land claims through growing moves towards reform. ‘Community’ outreach and projects in neighbouring areas in turn were seen as a route to offering ‘development’, based on a wider commitment to the area, although of course never assuaging land hunger or dealing with deep inequality. In the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe that I know well, this has been quite a successful ploy, and even at the height of the land invasions in 2000-01, key conservancies were protected, including from the very top.

Although of course not articulated in this way, the Laikipia conservancies have followed a similar route, bolstered by the new legal status, and so formal recognition, of conservancies. Although not the case for our hosts who receive no external funding, many receive huge amounts of subsidy from international conservation organisations and even massive grants from aid agencies, in support of their ‘community’ work. Some even have TV deals with global channels to profile their animals and the great work they are doing. With the political-business-international donor elite from Nairobi regularly visiting, Laikipia is valued as major national asset, and leading political families (as seems inevitably the case in Kenya) have stakes in the area.

Some conservancies have exceptionally good PR machines, with hagiographic books profiling owners, alongside great international press coverage highlighting the wonderful work being done, with glossy pictures of threatened charismatic animals and their conservation. With royal patronage thrown in (the future king and queen of England apparently proposed to each other on one of the conservancies in a very fancy lodge), there is a very high level of support, which disgruntled pastoralists, even when agitated by local politicians, cannot confront.

Yet the inequalities are stark between pastoralists suffering drought and conflict in the areas around Laikipia and the plentiful resources and rich lifestyles of those who reside and visit there. The Nanyuki airstrip is full of small planes and helicopters, ferrying tourists to amazing lodges and kids from the farms to their private schools in Nairobi. However, such stark inequalities cannot be hidden completely and, given the historical origins of these places, memories of violent dispossession are of course still present. Despite the international backing, the huge foreign investments and the hold that the conservation organisations have over land and politics in this area, recalling the Zimbabwe experience, you have to wonder how sustainable this is for the longer-term.

‘Community’ approaches

To counter any agitation towards land reform, and in moves aimed at shoring up the conservancy ‘model’ and so protecting the core private lands of Laikipia, the community conservancy approach is being very effectively sold as a solution to ‘sustainable development’ in the northern areas of Kenya by the NRT. And, as we found, there are well-articulated arguments both for and against.

In our study areas to the east in Isiolo County some community conservancies have already been established and others are being planned. These plans are highly divisive, however. Accepting the challenges of pastoral production and especially conflict, some local pastoralists are avid supporters. In particular, the appeal of increased security through the supply of guns and guards to local areas is seen as a great advantage. Many areas of grazing have been out of use for years – if the conservation people can fight off enemies, then it will be an improvement, and meanwhile we can earn money from tourism, so the argument goes.

Others object: our life is based on pastoralism, we already have problems with wild animals, how can we encourage more? And will people really want to fly in to have a holiday in Kinna, rather than one of the lodges on the white people’s ranches? And yes, stopping conflict is definitely a priority, but will peace come through more guns, night vision equipment and armed guards? Surely this will result in abuse, as we’ve seen elsewhere? The debate continues to rage, but currently there is very little common ground, with accusations flung from all sides.

Future directions?

A very short visit can inevitably only give a partial view, but it was sufficient to touch on some of the controversies surrounding the Laikipia conservancy approach, and its extension into community land. The troubled histories of former settler economies in Africa cannot be brushed under the carpet with slick PR campaigns, backed by the global conservation elite; nor can the very dramatic, racialised inequalities be ignored.

Yet, nevertheless, the arguments for integrated use of land in the face of recurrent drought and climate change are good ones. The challenges of the pastoral economy, especially for younger and poorer people unable to accumulate large herds, are very real, while the benefits that can be derived tourism and wildlife are tangible.

Beyond, the polarised debates a more open deliberation about the future of the drylands – and the role of both pastoralism and wildlife use within this – is clearly required, as the future of Laikipia and the conservancies remains highly contested.  

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on the PASTRES blog

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Conservation conflicts: land use in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld

The conservation of biodiversity in places where people also live and farm is not straightforward. The last three blogs have offered some perspectives on the dilemmas faced in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe, and this blog offers an overview.

The politics of land in this region is much contested and has been for much of the last century. National parks, conservancies, hunting concessions, sugar estates, large-scale farms and small-scale farming and herding all compete for space. Beyond the irrigated estates and farms, it is a dry and hostile place, where carving out a living is difficult. This is made more challenging for those living close to areas where wildlife also live, especially as the exploding population of elephants spills over destroying crops in their wake.

All these land uses will be part of the future of the southeast Lowveld near the Gonarezhou park, but how to make sure that conflicts don’t escalate and livelihoods are not destroyed? This was the focus of the most recently published trio of blogs. Based on our recent discussions in the area, they aimed to offer all sides of the story, including those who are often not heard in conservation debates – poorer farmers and herders living on the margins of the wildlife estate.

Seeking compromises and searching for solutions that involve all parties is essential, whether over controversies about park boundaries and fences or about investments in large-scale farming, as in the Chilonga case. Ignoring local views only creates more conflict and resentment. This was the lesson learned when the CAMPFIRE concept was developed – the importance of sharing benefits so as to have a joint commitment to the future both of wildlife and of livelihoods. As the last blog in this series shows this illustrious Zimbabwean experiment has run into problems, but learning lessons from these is the route to a more effective approach to conservation, rather than reverting to the ‘fortress conservation’ models of the past.    

Since this blog series was published during Easter/Ramadan/Passover periods and readers may have missed them, I thought I would have a reprise this week, providing links to all three. Read them together and please feel free to comment on the blogs, whether you agree or disagree. The important point is to have a debate about the future of biodiversity, conservation and livelihoods.

This is a long running discussion, but one that needs more airing across different viewpoints if the ambitions of the action plan on biodiversity to be launched at the forthcoming Biodiversity COP in China are ever to be met.

In case you missed them, here are the three blogs:

The trouble with elephants: why limits on culling are bad for conservation | zimbabweland (

Protected areas: national assets or shared heritage? | zimbabweland (

Failing institutions: the challenge of governing natural resources in Zimbabwe | zimbabweland (

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Failing institutions: the challenge of governing natural resources in Zimbabwe

A field near Chikombedzi devastated by elephants

The much-lauded book, Why Nations Fail, argued that sustained economic progress only occurs when institutions work. This means enforcement of legal rules, clear secure access to land, regulations that are transparent, bureaucracies that function and of course – emerging out of this – a lack of debilitating corruption. In Zimbabwe, these conditions do not hold.

Like all other domains, this applies to natural resource governance, including the co-management of wildlife. Resource governance in Zimbabwe is largely a decentralised function, with local councils being key players, despite overarching legislation and a national environmental management agency. The functioning of local government is therefore crucial, especially around policies aimed at benefit sharing of wildlife and other natural resources that are on state land.

But with local government failing to deliver and institutions failing, can effective, accountable local management of resources and benefit-sharing with communities function? Can CAMPFIRE – the great Zimbabwean experiment centred on the sustainable use of wildlife – be revived?

CAMPFIRE: sharing the benefits of wildlife resources

The pioneering CAMPFIRE programme (Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) emerged in mid 1980s (formally launched in 1989) as a solution to the classic conflict between environmental protection (through national parks) and human needs and sustainable use. At the centre was a commitment to benefit sharing from the sustainable harvesting of wild animals – through hunting concessions – when they were killed on communal land, so reducing incessant human-wildlife conflict (see photo).

Revenues from hunting were then shared with local communities so that they too benefited from the parks estate and wildlife that spilled over. It was seen as a win-win solution, with community-based approach hailed as the alternative to ‘fortress conservation’. Conventional approaches had repeatedly failed by often violently excluding local people, who built up resentments to national parks and did not buy into conservation efforts.

In Zimbabwe, the CAMPFIRE programme started very much as a community-based enterprise and the state was barely presented. In places like Mahenye on the edge of Gonarezhou, hunters under the direction of a local official would hand out cash to local people and local leaders. This rather paternalistic model later became institutionalised under the Rural District Councils that were established in the late 1980s.  Councils would then handle CAMPFIRE revenues, investing them in the area through particular local development programmes.

However, of late, this system has become largely non-functional. There are limited payouts due in part to declines in hunting revenue, but in particular due to embedded corruption in the system. Hunters rarely declare their full income, council officials are in on deals and money gets diverted to other projects and people are not happy. Today CAMPFIRE is an example of a failed institution, reflective of a wider malaise in the Zimbabwean state.

When we were in the southeast Lowveld recently, including visiting Gonarezhou national park (see previous two blogs in this series, here and here), talking to hunters, parks officials and local communities, the debate about the future of CAMPFIRE was frequently mentioned. Should it be abandoned, accepting that it doesn’t work, or should there be a concerted investment in rebuilding the institutional mechanisms? Which position is taken very much depends on where people sit in the wider debate and how they interact with the park, hunting concessions and the degree to which they suffer conflicts with wildlife. All agree that CAMPFIRE is not working as it once did.

Those who argue for its abandonment have a vision of a protected park (some would say a return to a ‘fortress’ model) with buffer zones where ‘development’ projects could function. While they claim they are not against hunting, they are not keen on it either and have many complaints against the hunting fraternity in the area. Their view is that local government oversight will never work, as almost inevitably budgets are constrained and, even if not appropriated for private gain, the likelihood of local communities benefiting will be limited as resources will be diverted elsewhere. This was a pattern seen through the 1990s when economic structural adjustment hit state revenues hard and CAMPFIRE payouts dwindled, resulting in much disgruntlement.

Those who are in favour of a revival argue that only with genuine revenues – from hunting, but also tourism – coming to the areas around the parks will the long-term sustainability of the resource be secured. The sort of ‘alternative livelihood’ projects being proposed are not enough, as the benefits are small and uncertain. If communities are seen as genuine ‘shareholders’ in the park and the wider natural resource asset – as the traditional inhabitants of the area – then benefits from high value activities need to be shared for wider development. There are many debates about how this should happen, and a general negativity about the state, including local government, is expressed, but the basic CAMPFIRE principle is one that such actors subscribe to.

Reviving community-based resource management means resuscitating the local state   

I want to argue for the revival of CAMPFIRE (or something equivalent), in the name of both conservation and development. Having recently been in Kenya where no such options are available (in part because of the banning of hunting), the alternatives such as ‘community conservancies’ – more the buffer zone community development option – appear to generate conflict and uncertain benefits.

However, before making the case for a CAMPFIRE revival, we first have to look into what went wrong. It means looking at the sorry tale of the decline of the state – and wider institutional capacity – in Zimbabwe over the last decades. In respect of local government, we can see four phases.

  • At Independence, Zimbabwe inherited the colonial model, with a separation of administration of communal areas (formerly ‘African’ Tribal Trust Lands) from what were the former white, European areas. The focus on communal area development was serious in the early years, with a new cadre of district administrators, many ex-combatants from the liberation war, recently retrained in places like Birmingham in the UK. There was a deep commitment and passion for development and the early ideas around CAMPFIRE emerged in this context. Through a number of experimental initiatives, such as Mahenye, CAMPFIRE gradually grew and became more institutionalised. Commitment, trust, local networks and a sense of doing something different – and proudly Zimbabwean -drove the effort. These were all firm bases for a later institutionalising of a successful model.
  • The colonial anomaly of rural administration was addressed in 1988 through the formation of Rural District Councils, with jurisdiction over both communal areas and the large-scale farms. This potentially offered a larger tax base, boosting the limited revenue that local councils had beyond the subventions from government – such as beer halls and the like. In the districts where wildlife use was possible, CAMPFIRE became an additional and important revenue stream. With major capacity building efforts occurring with local government (from the UK government and others in places like Gokwe), local government took on a new lease of life and professionalism. This was the hey-day of CAMPFIRE as the system moved from an often informal and highly context specific arrangement to one that was more institutionalised. In this period, institutions of the local state seemed to be (largely) working.
  • This gradually changed from 1991, when the government agreed the economic structural adjustment programme with the IMF. The restructuring of the state meant that revenues flowing to local government declined dramatically. Just to cover recurrent costs, many councils diverted any revenues – including those from CAMPFIRE. This meant that dividends paid out to communities declined too, with many commenting on how the system was not supporting local commitments to natural resource management. At the same time, of course, resources linked to national parks declined too, and despite the quasi-privatisation and the creation of the National Parks Authority, things barely improved. With limited poaching controls, commercial poaching increased (particularly following de-mining efforts and the end of the hostilities in Mozambique) and local people were able to use the parks for small-scale hunting and grazing. Hunting operations meanwhile flourished, with high-paying customers enjoying the Zimbabwe experience, but the use of such revenues for benefit-sharing among local communities was very patchy.
  • By the late 1990s, this pattern had become embedded in the functioning of local government. With the economic crisis that has stretched from this period until the present, exacerbated by ‘sanctions’ and continued economic mismanagement by the state (and what some dub the party-military complex), the operation of CAMPFIRE has almost ceased on the ground. The struggle now was not just to cover recurrent costs, but many council officials sought to supplement increasingly unrealistic salaries by corruptly making use of funds. Alleged deals between council officials and hunters on concession terms and bid arrangements have meant that money once destined for CAMPFIRE communities was diverted. Today there is no systematic pattern of payouts and although there may be ‘projects’ funded from government sources, combined with donors and others, these are isolated, not sustained and ineffective. In other words, the core institutional capacities that allowed CAMPFIRE to thrive before have been lost. It is a sorry state of affairs, but a pattern replicated across government.

What are the reasons for this state failure? It is not just greedy venality of government officials – the usual narrative about ‘corruption’ – instead, we have to look deeper, especially if the aim is to revive the state and its functioning. The forced restructuring, the decline of state funds, sanctions affecting aid flows and the lack of accountability and transparency in the system all contribute, and this has accreted now over 30 odd years. There is much petty corruption, widely sanctioned, that is just for survival (you cannot survive off a government salary), but this is small compared to the larger diversion of funds. The problem is that the wider acceptance of taking a little in order to make things happen (and keep people alive) seeps into a broader lack of accountability, allowing the big fish, protected by political patronage, to get away with it.

Rebuilding the state from below

It sounds like a hopeless situation, beyond a solution. Some continue to argue for moving functions of the state to (quasi-)private arrangements hoping for an efficient, technocratic solution. But experience suggests that this does not provide the answer. Rebuilding the state from below will be a slow, difficult process but it is vital, as only the state can provide the forms of accountability and reach that successful resource governance (alongside many other functions) requires. For CAMPFIRE to be revived there has to be capacity to oversee tenders and contracts, offer distributions and regulate wildlife in clear, transparent ways. And this requires trust, representation and accountability mechanisms, alongside broad coverage, which only a state-led system can offer.

The task will not be easy, as the decay has been allowed to persist for so long, but rebuilding state functions is not impossible. Starting small, building on existing relationships, focusing on successful efforts, encouraging participation from the people and rewarding those who make things happen are all requirements. Why not start with the revival of CAMPFIRE, focusing on marginal areas where wildlife resources are rich, such as in the southeast Lowveld near Gonarezhou where it all started? Just maybe this can be an example for the revival of state functioning in Zimbabwe more broadly. Whatever happens in the elections in 2023, this has to be the major challenge for the future.

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Protected areas: national assets or shared heritage?

What are the roles of protected areas in national development? Are parks national, even global, assets preserved for posterity and for protecting biodiversity, or are they part of a shared, local heritage, where nature and human use must be seen as integrated?

This debate is a long-running one, ever since the establishment of the first ‘national parks’ in the US. Today, it is rising up the agenda again, as advocates for a 30×30 commitment (protecting 30% of a country’s land area for conservation by 2030) gains traction in debates around the ongoing COP15 discussions on the post-2020 global framework on biodiversity to be concluded in Kunming in China later this year.

The rehabilitation of Gonarezhou national park

These were themes that were central to discussions during our recent visit to the southeast Lowveld in Zimbabwe, including a visit to Gonarezhou National Park at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust, which followed on from our recent exchange after my earlier blog. Thanks to financing through the Frankfurt Zoological Society from a number of philanthropic foundations, the park is undergoing a much-needed rehabilitation. After years of neglect, the basic infrastructure had declined and the management of what are crucially important ecosystems and biodiverse habitats had lapsed.

The Gonarezhou ConservationTrust is a joint venture between the government (through the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority) and the FZS, based on a 20-year agreement from 2017 to manage the huge 5,000 km2 area. Already major changes have happened, including the recruitment and training of many armed guards and rangers, along with the improvement of roads, camping and lodge sites. Although currently the park is receiving significant amounts of external funding as a contribution to its US$3 million per annum running costs, the aim is to break even, boosting pre-COVID income of about $500m per annum through major tourist investments.   

Central to the park strategy is the securing of the boundary, especially on the Zimbabwe side. The erection of an electrified veterinary fence along the whole border has been recently completed, together with the employment of guards to patrol. This investment has been facilitated by government, through the Department of Veterinary Services, although where the money originally came from remains obscure. Although the fence is aimed at stopping animals leaving the park and carrying disease to domestic herds outside, the fence is also part of the park strategy to contain animals and maintain a strong, secure boundary.

However, given that the area is endemic with Foot-and-Mouth and not part of an export zone where ‘disease freedom’ is required, the veterinary rationale for the fence is shaky to say the least (see an earlier blog on this theme). And, in any case, given that the fence is not continuous, as animals are allowed to move into hunting areas and can anyway move up rivers where the fence does not cross, buffaloes (the main FMD carrier) can easily move into the farming areas (and do).

Whatever the origins of the fence, it serves the park strategy well. As was explained to us, the aim is to reduce human-animal conflict (although see the previous blog on the ‘trouble with elephants’), as well as encourage more regulated use of park resources by local people, overturning what was seen as a dangerous free-for-all that existed before. Today groups are allowed in to cut grass and to collect non-timber forest products, but livestock are never allowed to graze inside the park boundary, no matter how bad the drought conditions. The aim then is to keep animals in and people out.

While Hugo and colleagues objected to the label of ‘fortress conservation’ in my previous blog, there are clearly many parallels. The increased militarisation of park defences is also a clear trend, again very similar to elsewhere. While from inside the park, it looks like there are assaults from all sides that must be defended against (poachers from Mozambique, villagers seeking grazing from the Zimbabwe side and so on), from the other side of the fence, it looks like a well-defended fortress, and a big change from the more flexible, negotiated (others would say simply unregulated) arrangement that existed before.

Community tensions

The result has been heightened tension with local communities, which have been responded to be a range of outreach and community liaison activities, as well as intensified policing and arrests. The community outreach activities are pursued genuinely and with considerable resources and are led by committed staff from the Trust. There are investments in local infrastructure (roads, a proposed bridge, school rehabilitation), as well as attempts to address human-wildlife conflict (including growing chilli to create ‘cakes’ that can be burned to repel elephants). There is also a commitment to wider dialogue, with platforms created in villages around the park boundary, where grievances can be aired and issues addressed by park officials.

However, there remain problems, as we found when we talked with community members. There is a deep resentment around the change of access, especially for grazing, and multiple complaints that wildlife conflicts are getting worse not better. Many complain that the park does nothing about it. While this is not strictly true, the scale of the challenge is huge. The fence does restrict some animals, but elephants, in particular, don’t have much time for fences even electric ones, and regularly break through. None of the ‘projects’ offered by the park provide a genuine alternative to grazing. With increasing droughts and more pressure on land around the park, the need for relief grazing only gets bigger. While those with big herds (including absentees) are the most affected, it is the smaller livestock owner, who may have just a few cattle and goats, whose livelihoods are especially affected, as they depend on livestock provisioning through drought periods when crops fail.

While community outreach certainly helps open up channels of communication, the local liaison officers are at a bit of loss what to do, as they have no power to address the more fundamental questions around access to land (and crucially grass and water for animals). There is also a slightly naïve approach to ‘community’ involvement, with the assumption that co-opting some chiefs or headmen is sufficient. As was explained to us, sometimes the dialogue meetings are open fights as people rail against the park or – slightly bizarrely – against ‘Hugo’, as the dispute with the new park arrangement has become oddly personalised as if the Trust director owns the place!

The problem is that there are very divided views; different narratives about what the park and the wider landscape are for and the role of people in them. For some, parks are the last vestiges of the wild, natural world, where globally important habitats and species can be protected from human depredation. As part of a core strategy for protecting biodiversity, they are therefore globally important and central to a country’s national assets. Given their wider value as ‘global public goods’, they can also attract funds from outside, including interest from tourists and others able to pay for access. For others, by contrast, parks are part of a wider natural heritage, which has co-evolved together with humans. The landscape is one that has been part of people’s cultural histories, and where grave sites lie and spirits reside. These areas should be protected for use, but humans – through living with and from nature – are the natural guardians of it.  

These views are not easy to resolve, although there is a growing recognition, including in on-going discussions about a post-2020 global framework for biodiversity, that the most protected areas for biodiversity are ones that used by ‘indigenous’ peoples and communities, and that management of ecosystems is always necessary for their protection (just look at what happens when ‘protected’, ‘endangered’ elephant populations explode; see the last blog).

Ways forward?

So, what are the ways forward? Clearly the investment in Gonarezhou is much needed and welcome, but has the Trust adopted the right strategy? Is conflict bubbling away and will it explode at some point? Can the separation of wild nature and people really be sustainable?

As we saw in our own study areas neighbouring the park, land is currently highly constrained – particularly better watered grazing and arable land at the end of a dry season or during a drought (as now). Tensions between wildlife and people will always focus on these ‘key resources’. This means shared use, within and outside the park boundaries is essential. People in the communities must find ways of allowing wildlife to co-exist in their areas, while parks managers must find ways of people using key resources in the park (in certain places, at certain times). It has to be a negotiated settlement, and one that benefits both (conflicting) objectives. Without this damaging conflict will persist.

Creating ‘alternative livelihoods’ in these areas is very difficult, and no matter how many high-end tourist lodges are built this is not going to provide for the vast majority. Such people are not going to be bought off with the odd gardening project or infrastructure investment, no matter how welcome these may be. They need to make a living from the land – and that means livestock grazing and farming. Using aid and philanthropic money to invest in a national park is justified because of its importance for biodiversity protection, but this argument is difficult to sustain if over the fence poverty and even starvation reigns.

Development must emerge in the round – people, wildlife, ecosystems all need to be part of the picture.  The alternative to the siloed approach, where nature conservation is separated from wider development (and attracts the big bucks), is to accept that (no matter what fence is put up), boundaries are flexible. A park such as Gonarezhou is a national (even global) asset, but it is also a shared heritage, amongst all those who value this landscape; not least those who lived inside the park for many generations before its establishment less than 50 years ago.

There is a need for what some call an ‘inclusive’ or a ‘convivial’ approach to conservation: shared use, negotiated goals and so less conflictual and violent. In the wider landscape, this must mean biodiversity conservation of critical habitats and species; tourism to allow the widest group of people to enjoy and appreciate these historically and ecologically important areas; hunting, revenue generation and benefit sharing; and shared use of resources, particularly those key resources vital for agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, as well as wildlife. Fences, guns and guards are not the solution, and may even make matters worse.

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The trouble with elephants: why limits on culling are bad for conservation

Elephants are some of the most majestic animals in African savannahs, but they can also be the most destructive. This is witnessed dramatically if you travel to Gonarezhou National Park (appropriately, the ‘place of the elephants’) in the far southeast of Zimbabwe, as we did recently at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust. As we saw, the areas around water sources are completely hammered, with mopane woodlands destroyed. It is a sorry sight, and the elephants must wander further, including outside the park, to find food.

Too many elephants

Elephant populations have increased dramatically in Gonarezhou (as has indeed been the case across Zimbabwe), with the park populations increasing to around 10,000 animals (some say more). This is around three times the maximum number the park can hold sustainably; although as park ecologists argue they spread over much wider areas, including across large areas of Mozambique to the east. Simple ‘carrying capacity’ estimates don’t work well, but you only have to look at the damage in certain parts of the park to see that there is a problem.

Take a look at the three photographs below of mopane trees, taken on our recent trip to the area, and guess where the vegetation is. One is a protected area, part of a massive conservation effort supported by international money; one is a communal (small-scale) African farming area; and one is a resettlement area, settled by small scale farmers following land reform. The full answers are below, but you probably will have guessed already that the most deforested landscape is in the national park. And the reason is elephants.

Overpopulation of elephants can cause multiple problems. Not only is tree cover destroyed but the whole ecosystem is changed, with knock-on effects for other species, from beetles to birds. Blind ‘protection’ of what is supposed to be an endangered species makes little conservation sense. In these areas, elephants are more of a pest than a protected species.

There are so many of them and they are not happy animals – as we found out close-up when they charged our vehicle (twice). They reputedly become more agitated as they return to the safety of the park in Zimbabwe from Mozambique where poaching is intense. Mines from the liberation war existed along the border for a long time, although most have been cleared, but these also caused elephant rage (and death) when stepped on. And the new electric fence that borders the park within Zimbabwe apparently also gets them jumpy, as they break through to find food in the farms beyond.

Elephants destroy crops and livelihoods

As villagers told us in our study areas near Chikombedzi, just a few kilometres from the park, elephants regularly break through the fence (notionally a foot-and-mouth veterinary fence) or come up the dry riverbeds as the fence does not cross or through the small-scale farms nearby where there is no boundary fence with the park.

Elephants love crop fields and will destroy a whole area in hours. The area along the river is where farmers must eke out a living on small fields, farming sorghum and maize or irrigating vegetables. In this extremely dry area, this is the only place where agriculture is feasible, especially when the rains fail as this year. But this is also where elephants (and buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles and other animals) assemble and cause havoc.

Villagers complain that there is no ‘problem animal control’ efforts by the parks authorities these days, and there is no compensation paid in Zimbabwe, as animals in communal areas are the responsibility of the locals, not the parks, as they can be harvested in line with a quota system as part of the now largely defunct CAMPFIRE scheme (as discussed in a forthcoming blog).

We met Mrs KP, who had moved to her fields in this area to protect her crops. Her young children were staying in the village with relatives, but she was alone defending the last of her sorghum from the nightly raids by elephants. After yet another incursion into her field the previous night, there was little left.

She stays in a makeshift shelter and builds fires at night to ward off elephants. She also has a large torch, which she says sometimes worked to frighten them off. It is a lonely and dangerous life, and she was losing the battle. She told us that there were others nearby doing the same, while others had given up, resigning themselves to hunger or hand-outs instead of getting anything from the fields.

Historical estimates of elephant populations in these areas are a bit shaky, but everyone agrees that today’s numbers are the highest ever, at least since records began in 1975 when the park was established. In the past years populations have been growing at 6% per year, although this may be plateauing.

In the past, elephants could move more easily when fences didn’t exist and population densities were lower. The advent of the ‘transfrontier’ conservation ‘peace park’ area between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique was supposed to encourage ‘connectivity’, and so larger ranges for migratory and larger animals, but there have been limits to this ambition due to poaching, settlement barriers and geopolitics.

Restrictions on culling are causing major ecological damage

So why have elephant populations got so out of control? The major reason is that they are no longer managed as they once were through culling or relocation programmes that helped balance populations with resources. Although Mrs KP is not one of them, there is a clamouring global advocacy on behalf of elephants.

Organisations such as ‘Save the Elephants’ – along with all the major conservation outfits – raise very large amounts of money on the back of the argument that African elephants are endangered and must be protected and that culling  – and worse, hunting for trophies – is inhumane. If your experience of elephants is mostly derived from wildlife TV programmes watched from the comfort of your living room in London or New York, then you can see why such campaigns exist. But this is far from the experience of those living on the edge of Gonarezhou national park, as we discovered.

The result of such lobbying has been a dramatic decline in the ability of ecologists in parks to manage elephants, with devastating consequences as we saw. Currently CITES – the international body that regulates trade in endangered species – only allows for the culling of 500 elephants per year in the whole of Zimbabwe. For Gonarezhou, the quota is only 25. With trophy hunting imports now banned from the UK and elsewhere, the demand for hunting (made worse by the pandemic) has taken a hit too.

In the past, southern Africa was a major hotspot for hunting. However distasteful the practice, the ecological and economic benefits were significant when attention was paid to the distribution of benefits. Hunting revenues – especially from the trophy fee – were large and were (in theory at least) shared with local communities. With quotas carefully designed, the offtake was sustainable and geared to management of the wider ecosystem for conservation and biodiversity benefits.

Poorly conceived bans on trophy imports and hunting therefore are having major negative consequences on conservation in Zimbabwe. The result in Gonarezhou is widespread deforestation and loss of biodiversity. This in turn has dire consequences for poor people’s livelihoods, increasing poverty and hunger in highly marginal places, as elephants continue to ravage their limited subsistence crops.

This is not what CITES planned for, nor I am sure what those who spend their hard-earned cash on conservation organisations would want either. But somehow these perspectives – and the real, tragic situation of the likes of Mrs KP – are not heard in the air-brushed, positive spin of conservation lobbying.

New thinking needed

What then is the likely consequence of this strategy of protection at all costs, banning hunting and trophies and restricting culling? It is not pretty. We have seen what can happen before when elephant populations get out of control: when their food runs out, populations crash, with major consequences for the wider ecology. This is what happened in Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the early 1970s when around 5,000 elephants died of starvation over several years. It took decades for the ecosystem to recover. Without management, this may well happen in Zimbabwe too.

The mass starvation of large, intelligent animals is not a pleasant sight, and not a good look for the outcome of ill-thought out global conservation strategies. This is why new thinking about protected areas – and the role of elephants within and beyond them – is urgently needed, a theme picked up in the next blog in this short series.

The answer to the mopane tree quiz (from left to right): A: Communal area near Chikombedzi, with distinct browse line; B: Gonarezhou National Park near Chipinda Pools; C: Edenvale A1 resettlement area. And apologies to regular readers of this blog for the gap in posts. There are quite a few lined up for the next weeks, based on recent fieldwork in Zimbabwe, including two more in this series on dilemmas for conservation policy.

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