The return of fortress conservation: why excluding people means biodiversity conservation will fail

The recent UN biodiversity summit reported disappointing results. Not one of the 20 indicators set a decade before were met. In many quarters, there is a growing cry for more assertive measures to protect and extend biodiverse rich areas; a return to ‘fortress conservation’ where an increasingly militarised approach is recommended. This is a big mistake and will undermine local people’s commitments to conservation.

The privatisation and securitisation of national assets: conservation grabbing

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe, a pioneer in community-based conservation through the CAMPFIRE programme, is returning to a fortress conservation approach, enlisting foreign, private-sector partners to re-fence parks and keep people out, if necessary through lethal force. A number of deals have been struck, including with African Parks, supported by (ex-)British royalty, in Matusadona National Park and with Frankfurt Zoo in Gonarezhou National Park in the south (since 2017 under the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust).  There are plans afoot for other joint ventures in park areas in Zimbabwe, with external support providing a much-needed boost to the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s (Zimparks) depleted coffers.

In parallel to this expansion of parks areas, international donors have sponsored the training of game rangers, via the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, including of the now-famous group of heavily armed female game guards, trained by a (white, Australian) special forces soldier who had served in Iraq. As women conserving nature and battling crime, the group, dubbed ‘the brave ones’, have been widely celebrated (and ruthlessly stereotyped) in the media (also see this BBC video to get a flavour and more here).

The effective privatisation (under 20 year leases) of the conservation estate and the taking over of huge areas of the country by foreign organisations (Gonarezhou alone covers 5,053 km², while Matusadona covers 1,407 km2) has not had the sort of scrutiny that higher profile ‘land grabs’ have had. In fact, outside the particular areas, most people don’t even know this is happening. In many respects the deals make sense. The state is broke, there is a need to protect such national assets, and a partnership with outsiders allows for the rehabilitation of infrastructure, paying of staff and continuing the conservation work on behalf of the government (which still holds a majority stake).

However, what happens with such partnerships is that it’s not only the money that is on the table, but a very different way of thinking about conservation. Despite the rhetoric (and conservation organisations are good at this) about community consultation and involvement the experience of these efforts has largely been one of rewinding to an older era of colonial-style exclusionary conservation.

This is a wider trend, as documented by the excellent BIOSEC research programme  (video here) and shared most recently at a great POLLEN conference plenary session. Militarised conservation efforts to tackle ‘wildlife crime’ deploy technologies – from drones to military hardware to surveillance systems – which are used to assert an increasingly security-led style of conservation, casting locals as poachers and game wardens (now armed to the teeth) as saviours. This of course plays into a wider Western racialised narrative about conservation being about protecting wildlife and excluding and removing local (usually black) people.

The lessons of the community-based conservation era from the 1980s, where Zimbabwe was probably the world leader in both ideas and practice – are fast being lost. Yes of course CAMPFIRE and similar programmes had their problems. Questions were raised about who got the benefits, what a ‘community’ really was and whether this relied too much on conservation through iconic species that had a hunting value. But the basic principles that conservation gets nowhere unless local people are on board are as valid as ever.

Fortress conservation in Gonarezhou

A recent extended phone conversation with a colleague living near Gonarezhou park highlighted that the new Frankfurt Zoo led initiative is certainly more fortress than community conservation, with the effort focusing especially on species conservation (elephants and wild dogs are heavily profiled, as is the reintroduction of black rhinos). For sure, there are a variety of community support initiatives in the surrounding areas and there are ‘community liaison’ and extension officers employed. Around 300 game rangers have been employed by the park, many from the local area, and others are employed in building projects in new tourist facilities. This provides local benefits, but also provokes tensions. There have been some education programmes (the Chilojo Club), although framed in ways distant to local vernacular understandings. And there were extended, largely performative, consultations in the local area explaining the project, with multiple consultants employed.

But the complaints are multiple. The new electric fencing – which is expected to surround the park and stretch as far as Save Valley Conservancy – has prevented cattle grazing in the park, especially in drought periods. Animals are impounded and fines to reclaim them are high, and in many cases they are never returned. While there are periods when groups of villagers can come and cut grass, this is expensive if transport is hired but insufficient for fodder supplies, although good for thatching. People are having to reduce their cattle numbers due to lack of grazing, which is causing serious hardships. The fences were supposed to keep elephants out, but they continue to cause crop damage, even death in the area, as their numbers continue to expand and the electric fence is either destroyed or becomes non-functional when the solar panels are not working. The lack of compensation payments for elephant damage is a long-running complaint. The argument is that CAMPFIRE should pay, but this produces very little revenue and much of it is not distributed to the wider community. And the long-promised community projects have failed to materialise beyond a few school projects and savings clubs, adding to disgruntlement and rumours that others have pocketed the cash.

The strict, armed policing of the park boundaries causes friction with the local communities as boundaries used to be flexible and more negotiated (indeed some, such as by the Chitsa people in Sangwe, highly disputed). In the past, rangers would turn a blind-eye to those who came and hunted small animals as a source of livelihood, using only dogs, spears and snares. Many have returned from South Africa having lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic and are having to survive off substance hunting. Locals complain that they are treated just the same as the organised hunting syndicates who run from Mozambique and are involved in heavily-armed poaching, using AK47s and cyanide poisoning. This they argue is completely different, and deserves policing, but it is local people who seem to be arrested and jailed most. The conflicts between the park and the local communities are increasing, as park rangers clamp down and the challenges of the COVID-19 period increase. This is creating tensions and threats of violence in the community, as local people employed as rangers arrest locals. Despite the ‘out-reach’ activities and commitments to ‘community’ development, trust it seems is at a low ebb; as my colleague put it “there is a war between the park and the locals”.   

As with all fortress conservation approaches, the conservation area is separated from people. Low intensity hunting and grazing uses are banned and resentments rise. Militarised security operations signal that this is not your land, and the only people who now use the park and its surrounding hunting areas are extremely rich outsiders, who are mostly white; many of whom are investing seriously in tourist facilities with external capital in Gonarezhou. The park thus becomes a place of privilege not a national asset, and biodiversity conservation becomes dissociated from people’s practices – and something to resent not participate in.

From protecting areas to supporting people

The obsessive targets of the conservation lobbies to expand conservation areas – from a current global 15% of land area to 30%, and for some even 50% – miss the point. Expanding these areas through massive conservation led ‘land grabs’ in places where people are poor and landscapes are made us of – and the biodiversity within them – will fail. They have before, which is why a rethinking of colonial conservation models took place 30 years or more ago.

Instead, the targets should not focus on areas or in most cases even species, but on people. How about a 100% target for incorporating local people into biodiversity management practices by 2030 instead? Many of the villagers surrounding Gonarezhou already do this to far a greater extent than most of those who arrive on planes or live in towns who visit the now highly protected island of biodiversity.

As in the important debates about ‘convivial conservation’, perhaps local people and vernacular conceptions of conversation should have a greater say and more substantial involvement in the futures of such shared assets. Without this, the biodiversity and conservation targets for the next decade will certainly be missed too.  

Photo credits: J, Chikombedzi and IAPF


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8 responses to “The return of fortress conservation: why excluding people means biodiversity conservation will fail

  1. Jekesai Njikizana

    I didn’t see the need for (white, Australian) reference as you had not profiled any of the other groups by race, like the all female rangers the tourists or investors. Nevertheless a useful article explaining whats happening on the ground hidden from sight, racism in conservation has been topical recently and you seem to speak of it in a round about way. I do enjoy your blog though and thought I should engage with you, cheers.

    • Thanks for engaging. Glad you like the blog! I think the racialised patterns of access, control and power are clear in the blog, discussed at several points. As you note, it’s a key part of the story, and not only in Zimbabwe.

  2. Chap Masterson

    Wow, amazing article Dr Scoones.
    Seems that you have reached a point in your academic career where a hand-picked sample size of ONE is sufficient to write a weighty and inflammatory opinion piece – degrading work and investments about which you have evidently taken little time to understand.
    Perhaps you would consider an invitation to come and canvass the communities more broadly first hand.

    • Yes more research is definitely needed but we’ve been working in the areas around GrZ since the late 1990s and have been watching the changes. As you know from your Wild Africa work, campfire in places like Mahenye is not functioning as it once did. The return of fortress style interventions clearly undermine community based initiatives, which I thoroughly support (as the piece explains).

      • I received a response to the blog from Hugo van Westhuizen, the director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust via my institution. I have cut and pasted it below. There are some important points here, and I will certainly be taking up the offer of visiting. GrZ is one of my favourite places in Zimbabwe. As mentioned to Chap Masterton (above), we have been working in that region for over 20 years, and are always keen to learn about new developments. This particular blog resulted in quite intense reactions on and off line. There were many who agreed with the piece (including those with intimate knowledge of the area and recent developments) and some who objected. All the more reason to have a wider debate about land and the future of conservation and development.

        Joint venture partnerships in protected areas: A paradigm shift for
        wildlife conservation – Hugo can der Westhuizen

        A response to an article entitled The return of fortress conservation: why excluding people means
        biodiversity conservation will fail written by Dr Ian Scoones from the UK Institute for Development
        Gonarezhou Conservation Trust was established in 2016 through a co-management partnership
        agreement between Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWMA) and Frankfurt
        Zoological Society (FZS). This partnership is mandated to oversee all aspects of protected area
        management for Gonarezhou National Park and is guided by the provisions of the Zimbabwe, Parks
        and Wildlife Act of 1975. Gonarezhou National Park is a National Park located in the south-east lowveld
        of Zimbabwe and is a State asset which belongs to the Government of Zimbabwe.
        The term, ‘fortress conservation’ used by Dr Scoones to form the narrative of his article; meaning a
        conservation model based on the belief that biodiversity protection is best achieved by creating
        protected areas where ecosystems can function in isolation from human disturbance, does not in fact
        represent the values within which Gonarezhou Conservation Trust (GCT) was established. As GCT we
        do not only acknowledge that protected areas such as Gonarezhou National Park are a mainstay of
        biodiversity conservation and pivotal in contributing to people’s livelihoods, but have encouraged and
        supported participation and inputs from communities at local level through our community programs.
        The Gonarezhou Community Engagement platform – one of the first of its kind for any large protected
        area in Africa, explicitly acknowledges communities as primary partners and beneficiaries in
        conservation and seeks to (1) establish clear channels of communication for open and frank
        communication between the Park and our neighbours, (2) identify and discuss challenges faced by
        both communities and the park by virtue of their proximity to one another and to conjointly seek winwin solutions thereto, and (3) identify and action opportunities to build new partnerships and joint
        ventures between the park and its neighbours – the overall objective being to create more inclusive
        dialogue and investment for greater social, livelihood and ecological wellbeing and resilience for all
        stakeholders at landscape level.
        Since the inception of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust in 2016, the Park has grown to become one
        of the largest employers in Chiredzi South constituency – currently providing 183 full time jobs of
        which 76% are from the local community with a 15km radius of the Park boundary, whereas previously
        the vast majority of employees originated in other parts of the country. GCT also has on average 50
        fixed term contract workers every month that are contracted from the local community.
        In his article, Dr Scoones refers to the recent UN Biodiversity Summit reporting that the world failed
        to meet all 20 indicators of global biodiversity conservation. This was a misleading statement by Dr
        Scoones because he chose not to mention that the article by The Guardian he references, in fact states
        that, “Six targets have been partially achieved, including those on protected areas and invasive
        species”. It is no doubt that biodiversity loss and the deprivation of its contributions to people,
        threatens progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and human wellbeing.
        It is a pity that Dr Scoones chose to single out Gonarezhou National Park as an example of a place
        where ‘fortress conservation’ is taking place. To write his opinionated article, Dr Scoones mentioned
        that he acquired information from a friend who lives close to Gonarezhou National Park. A handpicked
        sample size of just one interviewee, hardly demonstrates even the most rudimentary of scientific or
        journalistic rigor to support such a weighty and potentially inflammatory opinion piece. Through this
        response article, we are extending an open invitation to Dr Scoones to visit Gonarezhou National Park
        and to spend time appreciating park operations and to canvass the employees, the communities and
        other stakeholders for himself.
        Concerned by how misinformed Dr Scoones is about the management status of Gonarezhou, we
        would like to point out several inaccuracies in his article about this Park:
        • Gonarezhou National Park has not been privatised or leased, “land-grabbed” or ‘taken over
        by a foreign organisation’. It is and remains the property of the Government of Zimbabwe.
        GCT is a partnership between the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and
        Frankfurt Zoological Society and in no way prejudices the sovereignty and authority of the
        government parks authority. While there were extended consultations in the local area
        explaining the project, no consultants were employed, and GCT saw it as critical to open
        dialogue with communities and stakeholders, while trying to avoid being ‘performative’ in
        any sense. (Dr Scoones also refers to ‘Frankfurt Zoo’, instead of the Frankfurt Zoological
        Society. The two are entirely different entities’).
        • It is true that subsistence hunting or grazing is not allowed in Gonarezhou National Park,
        which is consistent with all gazetted National Parks in Zimbabwe and indeed a standard to
        which most national parks across the world are managed. All fines imposed on impounded
        cattle are consistent with national schedules, and there are no cases of cattle not being
        returned to rightful owners. Furthermore, fines collected are NOT used for park operations,
        but are in fact reinvested in community benefit programs – so penalising individual
        offenders without prejudicing the broader community.
        • There are no privately owned lodges in Gonarezhou National Park. All camps or campsites
        within Gonarezhou National Park are being managed by Gonarezhou Conservation Trust
        and any income raised are directly reinvested into management. Income from tourism
        currently only contributes about a 10th of these management costs, therefore, significant
        funding is in fact poured into the conservation and development of the Park, with by far the
        largest operational cost being towards salaries to locally employed people.
        • Access into Gonarezhou National Park is guided by the national policy, which means anyone
        who wants to tour the Park, local or foreign, is subjected to an entry fee which costs the
        same across all National Parks in Zimbabwe, with highly discounted rates for locals. Our
        policy is to be open and welcoming to local tourism, which is not only a mainstay of the
        Park’s tourism sector, but so too is the Park part of the national heritage of Zimbabwe. As
        part of our community engagement programs, we assist local communities, living adjacent
        to the Park, weekly trips into the park at no cost to them.
        • Although GCT has indeed erected certain sections of fence to help manage encroachment,
        illegal grazing of livestock, unethical safari hunting practices and to limit human-wildlife
        conflict in certain sections, these sections are relatively short in extent. The much longer
        electric fence referred to by Dr Scoones is a separate issue entirely and is in fact an initiative
        of the Zimbabwe Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services (DLVS) seeking to reduce
        transmission and spread of controlled animal diseases. Anyone even vaguely in the know
        about current events in and around the Park would know that this fence belongs to the
        Veterinary Department and has nothing to do with Gonarezhou Conservation Trust – which
        casts further question as to the reliability of Dr Scoones’ one and only source.
        • The Chilojo Club which Dr Scoones refers to was in fact dissolved almost a year ago, and
        GCT has stepped up and assumed responsibility for assisting communities in responding to
        and mitigating human wildlife conflict around the Park.
        While the narrative of Dr Scoones’ article is disappointing, it is our hope that he can accept our
        invitation to visit Gonarezhou National Park and get a more holistic and accurate picture and
        thereafter to freely opine as to how the Park is being managed.

      • Jekesai Njikizana

        Excellent I like the transparency here Dr Scoones of publishing this rebuttal from Hugo from Gonarezhou, I offer myself as a third party to come along with you gentlemen as you interrogate what is the true position on the ground. I am a photojournalist in Zimbabwe

  3. Raoul du Toit

    Sociologists love to talk in terms of “narratives”, which is their way of conveniently packaging up sets of complex issues into separate bundles (however tangled) so that they can write papers about those narratives.
    Spice the narratives up with political sensitivities and with some scanty data (which in the case of Prof Scoones’ writings are typically expressed as percentages to obscure small, sample sizes, unless he has a sample size of one which means that percentages definitely don’t apply) and viola, you have a screed that you can preach from a soapbox. Some people in the passing crowd may listen to you, including some people who influence the agenda of development aid in vulnerable countries such as Zimbabwe.
    And so we have the narrative” of “fortress conservation” in southern Zimbabwe. As regards the political sensitivities needed to spice this up, there are plenty of them arising from the history of forced displacement of Shangaan communities during the creation of Gonarezhou NP in the 1960s and 70s. It is very easy to construct a narrative around those deep, genuine sensitivities and to keep the drum roll of that narrative going at a level that confuses rational discourse about where to go from here.
    Typically absent from the papers of the sociologists writing about “narratives“ of land-use in southern Zimbabwe are considerations of long-term sustainability, in both economic and ecological terms (which are actually not different issues). As regards household economics in that region, it is hard to find useful data (with the papers of Prof Scoones and his team being a particularly frustrating source, owing to the blurring of data mentioned above) but it is apparent that rural livelihoods have, of necessity, become far more diversified than is generally appreciated.
    Amongst the sources of income for a typical rural household, dryland cropping is now generally of minor importance compared to remittances from family members working elsewhere. The burning down of mopane woodlands to clear fields comes at great environmental cost, for only short-term gain in terms of sporadic and declining crop yields as a desertification process takes hold, exacerbated by population growth and by global climate change. But Prof Scoones says little or nothing about natural resource accounting in writings of his that I’ve tried to glean land-use insights from.
    It is just as well that these household economies are already quite diversified because no single sector of economic activity will alleviate the poverty in this region. Wildlife-based land-uses certainly aren’t going to do so on their own, and people can’t share national parks wildlife as easily as the sociologists claim, but wildlife-based activities can supplement other economic activities (providing jobs, at least) while yielding ecosystem service benefits at a national level, and contributing to regional hydrological management and global carbon balancing. The challenge is how to develop realistic, sustainable mechanisms for the payments of ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation credits, etc., that can trickle past the clutches of politicians and officials right down to household level.
    This requires innovative thinking, serious effort, and local and international support for integrated land-use planning, such as can be achieved within a Lowveld Biosphere Reserve that respects the land rights of communities within that landscape. While there are some faint but rather trite glimmers of perception within Prof Scoones’ article of this need, the overriding theme is an attack on “privatization” and “fortress conservation” of Gonarezhou NP with wildlife conservation framed in the simplistic, politically-charged narrative of “land grabs”- we have seen from recent developments how easy it is to jump on a soap box and incite the storming of a fortress…

    • Raoul,

      Thanks for your engagement with the post. This particular blog seems to have generated much interest, and I have had quite a few reflections from all angles, many of whom want to keep them private because of fears and sensitivities. It clearly remains a hot, yes politically-charged, debate in the lowveld, as it has been for decades.

      However, I do want to defend the analysis of ‘narratives’. Narratives – the way people tell a policy story – have important material effects. I recall us disagreeing in the 1980s about carrying capacity, overgrazing and soil erosion, resulting from very different interpretations of similar data. The same applies here.

      I am sorry that our data on livelihoods has been disappointing for you. We have been working around Chikombedzi since the 1990s and the data we have shared here and elsewhere is extensive – and certainly not based on vanishingly small samples! It shows, as you say, that livelihoods are diversified on and off farm, and with high reliance on migration. However, people do rely on farming and livestock keeping, hence their dismay at the exclusions resulting from the ‘development’ of the park, and the increasing criminalisation of their activities necessary for survival.

      Whether the alternative income streams from ecosystem services, carbon/conservation credits, tourism receipts and employment in the park will compensate is questionable (see the link to an earlier paper below). Increasing encroachment, enclosure and privatisation has very significant effects, which is why there is so much disquiet. Of course the longer-term consequences of different land use options have to be taken into account, but the views and livelihoods of those who have lived in these landscapes for generations must be central.

      It is this political tussle over competing narratives around the future of the lowveld that is at the core of this discussion, and while you and others have the right to state your views forcefully, there are alternatives. Let’s hope the conversation on this important topic – relevant not just to GrZ of course – can continue.



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