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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.  

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

Photo credits: J, Chikombedzi and IAPF

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The political ecology of land and disease in the Zambezi valley

In addition to migration discussed in last week’s blog, the changing politics of land use in the Zambezi valley is another dimension that has affected the incidence of trypanosomiasis over time.

Over the last century, the people of Hurungwe have been subject to numerous external interventions. The Korekore were the original inhabitants of the area, prior to the waves of migration discussed last week. The reasons the Korekore are settled where they are today is a result of the massive engineering project of the Kariba dam, and the creation of the Mana Pools national park in the 1950s and 60s.

Colonial visions of modernity and the need for electricity to supply the growing industries and urban centres of Rhodesia resulted in a major eviction of people who had traditionally made a living along the Zambezi river. Colonial economic imperatives reshaped the landscape, and pushed people into new territories. In the subsequent decades, the Mana Pools area became a significant tourist attraction, generating revenues for the state and for elite ecotourism operators, as well as a symbolic site of ‘wild’ Africa for white residents of Rhodesia.

Surrounding the park a series of hunting/safari areas were established, and particularly after Independence, these became the location for high-end hunting operations. Some of these activities generated some employment for locals, but not much. Ecotourism and hunting was by and large the preserve of a white elite, and money did not find its way back into the local economy.

The Zambezi valley was a major front during Zimbabwe’s liberation war, with frequent incursions of fighters from Zambia and regular battles with the Rhodesian forces. In this period, tsetse control efforts were abandoned, and the fly encroached into once cleared areas. With peace and Independence in 1980, aid programmes supported clearance efforts once again, and the tsetse fly retreated. Combined with migration from other areas of the country (see last week’s blog), and the mid-1980s cotton boom, the habitat for tsetse flies also declined.

But there were countervailing drivers, encouraging an expansion of tsetse habitat too. From the late 1980s, Zimbabwe was at forefront of ‘community-based conservation’ and the CAMPFIRE programme became a world-famous experiment. Revenues from hunting were to go back to the community, and provide much needed support. But CAMPFIRE was premised on generating revenue from animals shot (or sometimes photographed) in the communal areas, where people lived. While providing an economic basis for conserving wildlife, it encouraged wild animals to be closer to people. And since such wildlife are significant hosts of trypanosomiasis, and their habitats the same as those of tsetse fly, the disease consequences of CAMPFIRE were potentially significant.

With the decline in hunting operations with the collapse of the economy and the failure of bankrupt Rural District Councils to share revenues, CAMPFIRE has declined in significance. But there is a new kid on the block, focused not on wildlife, but on carbon. A massively ambitious project – Kariba REDD – was established notionally over thousands of hectares, including in Hurungwe, and in our study area. Making use of international markets for carbon, and linking to the UN REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), the project aimed to put a value on carbon, and reverse the decline in forested area across the Zambezi valley.

Through protecting – and indeed expanding – forests against a notional baseline, other values could be marketed, including an expanded trade in ecotourism and wildlife hunting. Like the interventions that went before, carbon is restructuring disease landscapes too. As carbon has acquired value, the project is increasing incentives both the plant and protect trees. These may expand the habitat of tsetse flies, including into the formerly cleared areas.

Understanding disease incidence, spread and risk requires looking at the underlying structural drivers. These are not just the proximate ones of changing climate, habitat, demography and so on, but can be traced back to much deeper causes. Whether these are the factors that drive migration or incentivise investments in hunting or carbon, these can be linked to wider political economy processes. These may often reach to the global political economy; way beyond the confines of the fields and forests of the Zambezi valley.

A political ecology of disease must therefore take these factors into account. Any appraisal of intervention – whether for forest protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife protection or infrastructure development – must look at these wider webs of power and influence. Without looking at the political drivers of disease, we may never understand underlying causes, or define the most appropriate interventions. As the blogs in this series have shown, ‘control’ interventions may miss their target, if wider questions of land access, migration, economic opportunity and the politics of competing land values are not addressed.

The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa work was supported by ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) programme funded by NERC, ESRC and DFID, and the Zimbabwe study was led by Professor Vupenyu Dzingirai (CASS, UZ), working with William Shereni (Ministry of Agriculture), Learnmore Nyakupinda (Ministry of Agriculture), Lindiwe Mangwanya (UZ), Amon Murwira (UZ), Farai Matawa (UZ), Neil Anderson (Edinburgh University) and Ewan McLeod (Edinburgh University), among others.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Cecil the lion: a lens on land, wildlife and elite politics in Zimbabwe

A lion called Cecil from Zimbabwe hit the headlines this week. He had been shot by a dentist from Minnesota as part of a high-end bow hunting trip to Gwaai Conservancy on the edge of Hwange National Park. A huge uproar has been generated. Walter Palmer (the dentist) has been condemned by the general public, politicians, including the UK PM David Cameron, and countless ‘celebrities’. The Zimbabwean government has demanded his extradition for trial alongside the landowner, one Honest Trymore Ndlovu, and the hunting guide, Theo Bronkhorst from Bushman Safaris. Bronkhorst had helped bait the animal and draw it out of the park where it could be killed on private land, apparently though without the appropriate quota. There have been calls for a ban on hunting, tough restrictions on trophy imports and a flood of money being pledged for lion conservation.Cecil-the-lion-ap-640x480

The whole episode is for me a fascinating lens into Zimbabwean land politics, and the relationship between humans and ‘wild’ nature, at the centre of debates about conservation and development. A number of things have struck me while trawling through newspaper articles, social media and other commentary (some of it really weird – just check out #CecilTheLion for a flavour).

First is the relationship between people in the (urban, middle class) west and ‘wild’ Africa, and particularly its charismatic wildlife. The outpouring from everyone from Mia Farrow to Ricky Gervais to Newt Gingrich has imposed a strange anthropomorphism on poor Cecil. He had a name because he was famous for his large black mane. But why Cecil? Surely not linked to the other famous Cecil (John Rhodes) associated with Zimbabwe? Was this the tragic slaying of the imperial master, who had gained dominion over nature and people as the head of the pride? But Cecil also has another side to him. He is also constructed as one more of the cuddly toys – the Disney Lion King image of nature – that are stacked up outside the beleaguered dentist’s surgery. Walter Palmer did not fit in with the conservationist view – hunting and killing for pleasure is regarded widely with disgust, and the massive $50,000 fee seen as indulgent, arrogant extravagance.

cecil 1

Second, it raises questions about how hunting revenues can contribute to development. From the 1980s, Zimbabwe was at the forefront of an international movement away from a preservationist position on conservation to one that emphasised conservation for development through ‘sustainable utilisation’. Hunting it was argued could be seen as a form of management, as long as careful cull quotas were adhered to (apparently not in this case). Alongside Cecil, many lions (presumably without names) have been killed in the past years as part of regulated quotas. According to Peter Lindsay and colleagues in a 2013 PLOS One article, the annual lion quota for Zimbabwe is 101 across 38,000 square kilometres of hunting area on a mix of land-use types. On average 42.5 lions – less than half the quota – were killed each year between 2008 and 2011, presumably due to the drop in hunting visits to Zimbabwe in recent years. Along with other southern African countries, Zimbabwe pioneered an approach linking game hunting with development, and the famous CAMPFIRE programme from the late 1980s became a flagship, with hunting concessions offered on communal lands nearby parks and safari areas. The revenues raised were quite considerable, especially for the big five. Around 90 per cent of CAMPFIRE revenues were from sport hunting, not other forms of tourism. Funds were ploughed back into development projects with dividends going to both the local community and Rural District Councils. CAMPFIRE did not always work as planned, and there have been many critiques, but the principle of making use of local resources for local development has been widely acknowledged in the region – if not in East Africa where a more preservationist strand of conservation persists.

Third, while for Westerners lions are either Disney style characters in charge on the African plains or potential trophies to show off machismo and hunting prowesss, for many Africans living in areas near national parks, lions are dangerous predators and pests. They kill their stock, and sometimes people too. Last year there were a number of reports of lions terrorising people in the press in Zimbabwe. And no doubt many, many more where they killed livestock. Hunting as pest control is often valued, especially if the benefits are shared locally, and the hunting replaces the inadequate Problem Animal Control operations from the National Parks and Wildlife Agency. Walter Palmer might have been a saviour to some poor villagers, rather than the devil incarnate.

Fourth, the Cecil story exposes some of the racial dimensions of the relationships between wildlife, land and hunting in Zimbabwe. The hunting business has a long pedigree going back to the establishment of hunting blocks in various parts of the country in colonial times. Hunting was always seen as central to the colonial conquest of taming wild Africa. Many white farmers turned their properties over to private game hunting reserves in the 1980s and 90s, sometimes as part of large blocks of land where the fences were removed, called ‘conservancies’ – such as Gwaai in the west, as well as many others, notably the well-known Save Valley conservancy in the southeast. These blocks and conservancies became the playgrounds of a rich, white elite; some local but many international, with Americans and Europeans being regular customers. Unlike the CAMPFIRE arrangements, the benefits from conservancies to surrounding populations were minimal, beyond a few concessionary ‘outreach’ efforts. Grand visions of connecting conservancies with national parks across borders have recently been promoted in the ‘transfrontier parks’ movement, with the wildlife estate extending over massive areas, very often to the exclusion of people and their livelihoods. Conservation – and hunting – has been long associated with white privilege and colonial expansion, and a European construction of landscape as wilderness. Cecil (and the name becomes more appropriate with this lens) is also about issues of race, colonialism and the control over land.

Fifth, the case however also reveals a new elite land politics in Zimbabwe. The extensive game ranches and conservancies were mostly subject to land reform in the early 2000s. Many of the former owners were evicted, along with their safari operations. But these lands, unlike many of the agricultural areas elsewhere in the country, were not handed over to land-hungry peasants or unemployed urbanites, but to elites. For a time there was an argument that conservation areas were not to be part of the land reform, and that a separate wildlife-based land reform would be instituted. This was to be under the control of the Ministry of Environment, and not the Ministry of Lands, and so would guarantee the sanctity of the wildlife estate as a good source of revenue – from hunting, but more especially tourism. However this soon got overridden by politics and many of the conservancy lands and other game farms were allocated as part of A2 (medium to large scale) land reform. And, as with a lot of A2 allocations – and particularly in the conservancies that many assumed to be very lucrative businesses – to well-connected elites. The list of ‘beneficiaries’ of some of these areas reads like a who’s who of the ZANU-PF political-military elite. Wikileaks offered details of who was in the Gwaai area where Cecil was shot, and there are many recognisable names. Honest Trymore Ndlovu was one such beneficiary (a Mugabe ‘land grabber’ in some people’s parlance). The new land owners in search of income from their land have hooked up with white safari operators, some who had formerly operated on the same areas. Some are legit and above board, sadly many are less so – and Bronkhorst it is alleged is one of the less reputable crowd. Wildlife is once again perpetuating a new elite land politics linked to wildlife, excluding wider populations from the benefits. This time it’s with new (black) faces, but with many of the same unsavoury connections of the past, with links between politicians, poachers and hunting business entrepreneurs never far from the surface.

So what should we make of the sad demise of Cecil? Knee-jerk reactions resulting in bans on hunting or trophy imports will not solve anything. Indeed, past bans elsewhere have made things worse, with a rise in poaching, and decline in conservation protection. But while the posturing rhetoric about extraditing an American dentist dominates now, Zimbabweans should look harder at who benefits from wildlife. If revenues are to be generated from hunting quotas (and I am a great supporter of this route to conservation), they should not just benefit a narrow elite – a new pact between white hunters and their safari companies and the new politically-connected black elite, as exposed in the case of Cecil. If Cecil and his other 100 odd fellow lions are to be part of a regulated hunting quota, and so creating a resource for development, then the conservancies and game ranches need to be opened up for wider use to generate broader benefit. Only then will the wildlife assets of the nation be properly shared and the habitats preserved for Cecil and his relatives. Perhaps the outcry over Cecil can result in a proper wildlife based land reform, so such wildlife can benefit everyone, not just elites – black or white.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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