Governing Conservation Change from Below

A Reaction to “Africa’s Environment: The Final Frontier, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on International Relations House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, Second Session, July 17, 1996.”

by Richard R. Marcus

Note: Statements at the Hearing were made by the following:

  • Hon. Gary Bombardier, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, Agency for International Development
  • Mr. Michael Wright, President and Chief Executive Officer, African Wildlife Foundation
  • Mr. Stephen Mills, Human Rights and Environmental Campaign Director, Sierra Club
  • Elizabeth Rihoy, Director, Washington Affairs, Africa Resources Trust

The meeting was conducted by:

  • Hon. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, The Subcommittee Chairperson, Subcommittee on Africa, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives.

Without a doubt, the very fact that such a hearing as “Africa’s Environment: The Final Frontier” took place is a victory for all those concerned with the relationship between people and the environment in which they live. This is a public recognition that, as the Honorable Ros-Lehtinen stated, “the need to protect the environment knows no municipal, state or national border. The environmental damage to one region of the world necessarily affects the global environment.” In Africa, the pressures on the environment are especially acute as conservation is so tightly linked to land use, land use change, sustainable development, and the quality of governance at the local and national levels. The critical nature of the problem has produced a sizable number of environmental heroes. Certainly there is no challenging the personal strength and community accomplishments of Wangari Mathai or Ken Saro-Wiwa. Donor and international NGO efforts to work with such local leaders, to bridge disciplinary cleavages, to reform devastating agricultural practices, and to empower people in their local communities can only be commended. In this, the international community, and many host countries, have reached a consensus. Indeed, we can even speak of a growing global norm positing that environmental challenges are no longer domestic or functional concerns. They are, in fact, critical challenges to national security, global security and human well-being.

With this seeking of the common good comes a great danger. This danger becomes clear by looking at the title of the Hearing itself. “Africa’s Environment: The Final Frontier” implies that putting the environment first, or deeming it part of national and global security, gives license to environmentally-concerned global powers to assert their will, for the good of humanity, over those who have not adopted the new global norm. Africa’s environment is not space, or the final frontier. Conservationists are not boldly going where no one has gone before. People live there. Most often, it is the people of these local communities that suffer most from the conservation initiatives, and thus it is the people of these communities who are least likely to subscribe to western conservation norms. Indeed, assuming there is a global norm claiming that conservation is a global security issue, it suffers from many of the same top-down tendencies which guided the development efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, despite project attempts to solicit participation at the local level. This is evidenced by the tragic results of some of the most “locally-sensitive” conservation projects in Africa such as Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Korup National Park in Cameroon, and Mantadia National Park in Madagascar.

In Amboseli, with the establishment of the park in 1977, the local Maasai communities were promised several benefits. First, to make up for restricting access to spring water within the park boundaries, a pipeline was constructed to provide adequate water supply to the Maasai. In addition, they were promised annual compensation for loss of grazing land and direct economic benefits from development and tourism. However, by 1980, the new water system did not supply enough water; after 1981, the compensation payments were irregular or lacking; and, direct income from tourism was very limited as the tourism industry became tightly controlled by Nairobi-based concerns (Lindsay 1987). The net effect of the park on the Maasai was overwhelmingly negative.

Korup National Park in Cameroon presents another example. Villagers in the park and its buffer zone rely on the park’s wild game. While some of the meat is consumed locally as a source of protein, most of it is sold for cash. In fact, hunting is the most important economic activity in the area, generating about half of a village’s total cash income. The next most important economic activity in the area is collection of fruit and nuts both for consumption and for selling. Following the 1986 establishment of the Park, hunting in it was declared illegal. Yet, the local residents were offered no adequate alternative means for income generation. Moreover, although there are six villages within the park boundaries, development activities did not take place within the park. Villagers in and around the park were left with no other option, other than breaking the law and hunting illegally (Infield 1989). In this case, conservation efforts were being undermined because local needs were not being addressed adequately by project designers. That is, local villagers, making a rational choice, risked substantial penalties or even imprisonment for poaching if it meant meeting their basic needs.

Finally, Mantadia National park of Madagascar has seen similar disastrous results. The park has a severe impact on the local people, living in the villages surrounding the park, who depend on the forest within the park for their livelihood. Kramer et al. (1994) calculated the average annual income loss for local residents due to the establishment of the park to be between $US90 and $US110 per household (1994). This is a significant reduction in income considering the average regional income before the establishment of the park was lower than the national 1992 per capita GNP of $US210 (World Bank 1995). While this study summarized the effect of the newly created park in terms of economic loss, there are additional ways in which local communities depend on forests including hunting and fishing, farming, and collecting diverse forest products (Lewis 1990).

Even in cases where conservation programs have been more “successful” than the aforementioned cases, the integration of local and international environmental interests have met a lukewarm reception at best by local communities. This is evidenced by community analyses of such “innovative” projects as Ankarana Protected Area (Gauthier 1996, Gezon 1995), and Ranomafana National Park (Swanson 1996) in Madagascar which are at the forefront of integrating local communities into international conservation project decision-making, and Kibale National Park in Uganda (Treves-Naughton 1996) where local community benefit has reached levels significantly higher than most projects.

It is tempting to argue that these problems are part of a learning process and that local discomfort or even hardship is worthwhile if the goal is to conserve the environment for the good of the human race. Conservation initiatives in Africa, however, have little chance of being sustainable if they do not meet with broad local support. Democracy mandates that the local population has a say in their community’s well-being. As local democracy in Africa grows, people have a greater potential to influence policy. They may opt not to support conservation initiatives if they are too painful in the short-run. That is, the inherent “good” in conservationism as a global norm, so apparent in western conservation circles, is not always so apparent at the local level.

While increased participation may lead to a decline in local support for conservation initiatives, it is exactly this participation at this local level that makes conservation program success possible. To borrow from Robert Dahl (1971), democracy can only be regarded as “full” when it reflects the will of the majority. Since the current wave of democracy sweeping through Africa seeks, above all else, to reflect that public will at the grassroots level, conservation programs need to be supported by the populous in the affected regions. That is, when a national park, the cornerstone of conservation policy in much of Africa (a point made by Michael Wright) is created, it must reflect the will of the people of that area. If it does not, then conservation programs will likely proceed without local ratification, thereby detracting from improved local governance, rather than lending to it. The participants at the Hearing did not go far enough in recognizing the role of the individual at the local level in the conservation process. In effect, the Hearing seemed to echo a statement by Gary Bombardier that:

“40 African countries have adopted, or are in the process of adopting National Environmental Action Plans (NEAP). In the best of cases, such as Madagascar, these are developed in highly participatory ways: set specific goals and objectives; establish priorities for the limited use of funds; and become a mechanism through which donors, host governments and people of Africa jointly collaborate in attacking environmental problems.”

This argument is rhetorically persuasive in that it recognizes the primacy of local voice in the conservation process, a point further elaborated upon at the Hearing by Michael Wright. In seeking local support for global conservation norms, what this position fails to note is that fundamental to an individual’s rights to participate is an individual’s right not to participate, and fundamental to a community’s right to collaborate is a community’s right not to collaborate. In effect, Stephen Mills’ point that human rights must include the right to protect the environment works equally in reverse; human rights must include the right to reject environmental initiatives. Just as Freedom of Religion is only guaranteed if individuals are allowed not to pray, and Freedom of Expression is only guaranteed if individuals are allowed to remain silent, so must individuals be allowed the right to “choose” conservation initiatives, rather than have them thrust upon them. Otherwise, the possibility that the local population will choose not to collaborate and to reject both conservation initiatives and democratization programs as part and parcel of the same international attempt to undermine local standards of living will increase. None of the statements at the Hearing recognize this primacy of individual choice at the local level as an indicator of program success, let alone recognizing that individual choice may determine program success. At the project level, USAID (via Pact, IFES, ARD, WWF, diverse universities, and others) supports valuable education programs that can enhance the likelihood that local populations will accept conservation initiatives, while seeking to nurture civil society, and enhance a democratic political culture. However, these projects are small efforts when compared to the short-run negative economic effects of many of Africa’s conservation programs (Kramer et al. 1994, for example).

Perhaps more important than the normative adoption of democracy concurrent to conservation are the implications for governance. Most African states lack the capacity to enforce conservation policies at the local level. If, therefore, the local population rejects a conservation program as too costly, the program will likely fail and the money invested will be wasted. Indeed, this is an echo of Bombardier’s point that democracy, human well-being, and conservation are in fact interrelated. The application of this needs, however, not to be concentrated mostly on helping soft governments to get the conditions right for conservation on the one hand, while trying to promote local democratic initiatives on the other. Such a process will likely act to pit one program against the other, eroding the personal freedoms necessary for democracy while eroding the economic preconditions necessary for environmental consciousness. Rather, application needs to focus on providing the social safety-nets, economic alternatives, and educational programs necessary to facilitate local adoption of both democratic and conservation initiatives. In so doing, conservation supporters must take a risk: they must allow personal freedoms to grow first, in the hope that democracy and conservation will compliment each other, but with the risk that local populations may choose a path that contradicts both global norms of Jeffersonian democracy and the conservation imperative itself.

1I would like to thank Yael Teutsch-Marcus, for her valuable contributions to this brief paper.


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