March 30, 2022 | By:

Effective Conservation: Parks, Rewilding, & Local Development

Jimenez_Effective Conservation book cover

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Effective Conservation by Ignacio Jiménez. Copyright © 2022 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, you can order it here. Also be sure to check out Ignacio Jiménez on the Rewilding Earth Podcast Episode 80 on Institutional Ecology and Rewilding Spain.

Chapter 1.

Large conservation programs, like new scientific disciplines, start with a heroic age. A few individuals push forward, risking failure and harm to their own security and reputations. They have a dream that does not fit the norm. They accept long hours, personal expense, nagging uncertainty, and rejection. When they succeed, their idiosyncratic views become the new normal. Their individual stories are then rightfully seen as epics. They become part of environmental history.

– E.O. Wilson, Naturalist and conservationist, United States

Paradise Lost … but on the Way to Recovery?

The Maputaland-Zululand region in South Africa is one of the most beautiful places in the continent. Hundred-million-year-old mountains descend to a vast coastal plain washed by the Indian Ocean. In this region, forests, savannas, open grasslands, and wetlands create a diversity of habitats that in historic times hosted some of the world’s largest concentrations of wildlife. Explorers’ accounts talk of millions of wildebeest, zebras, elephants, buffalos, elands, and other large herbivores roaming the region as part of a massive migration originating from present day Mozambique and, probably, from farther afield. This abundant megafauna was complemented by a highly productive system of lakes, estuaries, and reefs that harbored copious quantities of fish and seafood. Such bountiful Nature ensured prosperity for native groups like the peaceful Tsonga in the lowlands and the bellicose Zulu in the highlands.

However, this paradise began to decline at the end of the nineteenth century when, after the Anglo-Zulu war, the British Empire annexed Zululand and started to isolate its inhabitants in “reserves.” Successive white governments continued the process of land alienation, assigning the most productive lands to white farmers and herding native people into marginal areas or forcing them to migrate to work in the mines, plantations, and cities. Under apartheid, forced removals created large pockets of poverty in the rural areas that lay far from the main towns. Additionally, during the twentieth century the previously abundant wild game was systematically exterminated by white hunters and farmers who believed that these wild animals were the source of the nangana or sleeping sickness and that the region could be “civilized” and made “productive” by importing European breeds of cattle. Hundreds of thousands of wild mammals were shot annually in a hunting frenzy that surpassed even the slaughter of bison in the American West. However, this did not prevent imported cattle from struggling to survive in this hostile environment. The final result was the utter destruction of the native way of life. By the end of the past century this former paradise was one of the poorest regions in South Africa, with more than 90% of the population living in rural areas, more than 80% of households below the poverty line, limited access to education and water, and an AIDS epidemic.

Yet this sorry picture was about to change as the upshot of one of the biggest environmental battles ever waged in the history of South Africa. During the 1980s and 1990s a broad coalition of organizations and citizens mobilized to protest at plans by a multinational company to mine the dunes near Lake St Lucia for titanium and other heavy metals. Half a million people signed a no-mining petition, including future president Nelson Mandela and regional leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Parts of this region were already protected by one of the oldest reserves in Africa, dating back to 1895: St Lucia Game Reserve.

After a long battle, South Africa’s new democratic government rejected the mining company’s plans and chose instead nature-based tourism as the best development option for the region. It also became clear that the existing small, scattered game reserves would not be sufficient to protect the natural treasures of the region and promote their sustainable use for the benefit of local communities. It was during those tumultuous political years that a young anti-apartheid activist called Andrew Zaloumis returned to the region after years of persecution by the previous racist regime. Andrew had been in love with the region since his boyhood days when he had explored it with his father.

For Andrew and others, the anti-mining conflict and newborn democracy opened a unique opportunity to reverse decades of marginalizing both the native people and wildlife. These were the years in which the international conservation movement was looking for ways to reconnect nature parks to the wider needs of society. Thus, during the early 1990s the Maputaland-Zululand region was host to an experiment in ecological restoration, innovative reserve management, and nature-based local development that would eventually have repercussions the world over.

In 1999 Andrew and his colleagues convinced the newly elected South African government to declare the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a 220,000-ha World Heritage Site stretching along the Indian Ocean coast that would merge a network of previously existing reserves into a single management unit. The site was enlarged to 332,000 ha with a new designation, Isimangaliso Wetland Park, a few years later. At the same time, they shrewdly promoted government approval for a World Heritage Act that would give legal teeth to what in most countries is only a symbolic figure of protection. They thus created South Africa’s second largest protected area, encompassing most of the habitats present in this highly biodiverse region. They also created a new management authority that would represent local communities previously excluded from decision-making and opted for a business- rather than a bureaucratic-orientated approach. This was designed to help the small but experienced and motivated team undertake management tasks and make decisions rapidly. With clear legal support and a small proactive team, the new Isimangaliso Wetland Park was thus able to focus on conserving the region’s unique natural and cultural heritage while promoting poverty-alleviating development.

In the early 1990s, a small group of entrepreneurs interested in promoting conservation through eco-tourism bought two run-down farms in the hills adjacent to the nascent Isimangaliso Park. Their revolutionary idea was to convert these farms into a single wildlife reserve that would restore the original functioning ecosystems; in addition, these farms would be run as a profitable business and create more jobs in and benefits for surrounding communities than previous land-uses had. More ambitiously, they also aimed to establish a model for other landowners in Africa to follow, whereby the maintaining or restoring of natural ecosystems would be more profitable than traditional agriculture or livestock production. As evidence of its entrepreneurial spirit, the organization was christened Conservation Corporation Africa and the new private reserve named Phinda, which means return in the Zulu language. It was no easy task. First, the Phinda team had to fight against decades of political, administrative, and psychological inertia opposed to the idea of bringing back wildlife to the private lands from which it had previously been eradicated. Then, they turned pineapple and cotton plantations into natural grasslands, reintroduced locally extirpated animals, built the first lodges, and established liaisons with neighboring communities and farmers as they marketed their fledging reserve as one of the best wildlife experiences in South Africa.

These lines and most of the subsequent book were written in the village of St Lucia, a rural community of less than 1,000 residents adjacent to Isimangaliso Wetland Park and surrounded by the Indian Ocean and Lake St Lucia. From this small but prosperous community, I have witnessed and studied at first hand the results of these two independent but related experiments in conservation. Today, the two original properties of Phinda are part of the continuous 23,500 ha of the Munyawana Conservancy, where visitors can enjoy the facilities in six different lodges with 122 beds that provide local people with 450 permanent and 100 temporary jobs. Phinda managers estimate that previous land-uses (agriculture and cattle ranches) only guaranteed a quarter of these jobs. In a normal game drive at Phinda/Munyawana one sees no obvious traces of the former farms but instead a patchwork of seven different natural habitats inhabited now by the once-vanished buffalos, giraffes, elephants, lions, impalas, and cheetahs. This conservancy holds one of the highest concentrations of black and white rhinos on Earth. The area is fenced off from neighboring properties, a reminder of the challenges still facing wildlife in a rural landscape subject to increasing human density and pressures. All this obliges Phinda conservation director, Simon Naylor, and his team to manage intensively their populations of highly sensitive animals such as elephants, lions, and cheetahs. In times when rhino-horn powder is worth more than cocaine or gold, the threat of poaching means that heavily armed rangers are required to protect these mammals. Grasslands also need to be monitored, managed, and burned to maximize productivity, enhance plant diversity, and control invasive exotic plants. The only alternative option to active management in a reserve of this size would be to consent to the absence of certain key species.

The situation is similar in the adjacent but much larger Isimangaliso Park. In recent years Andrew and his team have restored around 20,000 ha of land that was once covered by an estimated six million exotic gum-trees. As in Phinda, the Isimangaliso team has reintroduced elephants, buffalos, black and white rhinos, oribi, giraffe, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and tseseebes. This is large-scale ecological restoration, even though large sections of the park have had to be fenced off to prevent conflicts between wildlife and local communities. Thus today anybody can drive through natural grassland inhabited by spectacular megafauna where just a few years ago there were only endless lines of exotic trees. After years of protection, Isimangaliso now harbors the largest populations of both hippos and crocodiles in South Africa. Whales and dolphins now swim past Isimangaliso’s protected coastline and leatherback turtles nest on its beaches.

When I asked my neighbor Mario Georgiou, a local entrepreneur, about the effect of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park on the village of St. Lucia, he didn’t think twice before declaring that “without the reserve this town would be dead.” St Lucia has gone from 500 hotel beds to 3,500 beds over the past few years. On a larger scale, the World Heritage status and the site’s management team have both been key in the construction of the new road that connects the town of Hluhluwe with the Mozambique border, which after decades of government-sponsored marginalization now provides access and basic services for thousands of people. As a result of the development of the new park, the number of tourist establishments in the region has increased by 60% in recent years, more than 70 small local enterprises employing around 1,500 people now work on park rehabilitation, and 26 artisan groups employing 600 people, mainly women, produce and market traditional crafts. In total, Isimangaliso provides over 7,000 permanent jobs directly related to nature tourism, plus more than 3,000 temporary jobs centered on building and maintaining fences, roads, and tourist infrastructure within the park.

However, huge problems still lurk in Zululand-Maputaland. These nature reserves, along with other adjacent sites, will not solve alone the region’s chronic problems that include poverty, rapid demographic growth, AIDS, racial exclusion, and illiteracy. Yet, they do seem to suggest a path toward ecological, social, and cultural recovery that could challenge the preexisting patterns established by more traditional activities such as mining, intensive agriculture, and livestock production. The connection between large-scale ecological restoration and local development is not a mere theoretical concept for the people living in this diverse region; neither is it for visitors. Some even dream of a larger area of natural ecosystems expanding into the neighboring countries of Swaziland and Mozambique that would reach northwards to the Kruger National Park and the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, in what would be an ecologically and economically productive wilderness where flourishing herds of herbivores could roam freely. As Nelson Mandela said in reference to the reintroduction of elephants into Isimangaliso, this is “almost spiritual, a form of restitution … an attempt to re-create the wholeness of nature so that we can live in harmony with its creator’s magnificence … so that the descendants of the elders of Maputaland, the generations of the future, too can experience this grandeur.”

These dreams are based on the results of the work carried out by a group of conservationists who were not afraid to try out new ideas and were prepared to defy the conservative inertia and preconceptions present in the spheres of both development and conservation. They worked hard, experimented, learned, thought “out of the box,” engaged with a wider public, and committed themselves to living in the rural areas they aimed to restore. Professionals such as these are the true protagonists of this book.

What Is This Book About?

The above description is an example of how to construct a virtuous circle through which circulate three mutually supporting effects:

  • A natural ecosystem whose overall state of conservation is improved by, for example, the restoration of certain parts that had been lost;
  • A society that obtains more benefits – some quantifiable and others more intangible, but nevertheless equally real – under this type of management than under other potential uses of the landscape (e.g., beach tourism, mining, plantations of exotic trees, industrial agriculture, and livestock production);
  • As a result of the two previous processes, natural landscapes will receive wider public support than other possible land-uses. In other words, the region becomes ecologically, socially, and politically resilient.

The story of Isimangaliso as a protected area and St. Lucia as a community is far from unique and comparable experiences are occurring in many other areas of the world. For ten years I participated in and witnessed a similar process in the Ibera Natural Reserve, a region in northern Argentina that experienced an unprecedented process of defaunation during the second half of the last century. However, over the past 30 years, thanks to the efforts of several public and private organizations and dozens of people committed to conservation, this area has not only seen the main threats to its survival halted but also the recovery of its wildlife populations and the return of several extinct species. This environmental resurgence has enabled local communities to enjoy economic, social, and psychological benefits that are superior to those of other similar villages located far from the protected area. In light of these results, public opinion and decisionmakers at local, provincial, and national levels now give enthusiastic support to such processes.

Processes of this type are occurring and will continue to occur (probably with increasing frequency) in all inhabited continents. According to my experience, they are not the mere product of chance. They happen because groups of people in governments, companies, NGOs, and academic centers who have clear inspirational visions of conservation have set out to throw off the shackles imposed by the inertia of environmental degradation and to work proactively for the conservation and restoration of certain wilderness areas. And they have done this while living in the territory they want to transform by hiring or collaborating with excellent professionals, by insisting and using their political skills, by generating alliances with third parties that in many cases have opposite visions, and by creating solid and highly motivated teams that share their ideas and are able to put them into practice.

The need for so many ingredients explains why these virtuous circles of conservation, local development, and public support are more the exception than the norm in the world of conservation. After more than 20 years of working in conservation and visiting conservation programs and protected areas in different continents, what I have seen in many cases is not particularly encouraging: “paper parks” where one enters and there are few obvious improvements regarding the processes of environmental and social degradation that are underway; unmotivated rangers, technicians, and managers doing their jobs half asleep, content just to meet deadlines and collect a salary at the end of the month, who use their authority to hinder any initiative that may threaten the status quo (that is, if they are not corrupted by the same groups that they should be fighting); consultants who repeat the same diagnoses and recommendations again and again without ever realizing that they will probably never be put into practice; scholars who get entangled in heated Byzantine discussions about the confidence intervals of population estimates of a critically endangered species rather than focusing their energy on how to save it from an extinction sink; colleagues who boycott the work of others for fear of being stripped of their prestige or their funding; groups that work toward the same goals but treat each other as competitors or even enemies; bureaucrats who channel funds from large cities in developed countries to biodiversity-rich areas using logical frameworks that only act as straitjackets and who care little for their work as long as everything looks good on their website or social media, regardless of whether or not there is any real impact on the ground; distrustful communities who do not see any clear benefits from protected areas or research/conservation projects involving threatened species; international NGOs that no longer remember why they were created and now put the cart of fund-raising before the horse of promoting natural ecosystems; institutions that repeat politically correct strategies or that develop projects that contain the latest fashionable concept for funders even if they fail to fit the current context of the project area or clearly do not suit the mission for which they were conceived.

Thus, it is sadly common to come across conservation programs that:

  • End up generating or promoting the existence of clearly damaged, incomplete, or fragmented ecosystems, which can lead to the extinction of some of their most distinctive species;
  • Reinforce inherent processes that fail to combat economic poverty, institutional weaknesses, distrust, and a lack of self-esteem in the areas in which they are working;
  • Are ignored by the main local political players, which prevents them from operating effectively or reduces them to an anecdotal role in land-use policies.

For every Isimangaliso or Phinda there are many more reserves where conservation actions have not created functional ecosystems, benefits for local people, or public support. The aim of this book is to try to help readers visualize how the most successful organizations work and which factors explain their achievements. This focus fits with what Brian Child called “institutional ecology: learning how to design institutions and organizations to improve economic and biodiversity outcomes.” The stories at the beginning of this book seek to illustrate the main concepts behind its content:

  • We must aspire to generate natural ecosystems that are in a better state of conservation than those we receive from our predecessors; this is not an unrealizable utopia.
  • These conserved or restored ecosystems should – inasmuch as it is possible – be tied to social processes that generate greater benefits for local people and the rest of society than other alternative uses of the territory.
  • To achieve these aims we require properly trained and well-led interdisciplinary organizations and teams that share the two previous concepts as their main raison d’etre.
  • For these teams to be effective, they must go beyond a techno-scientific approach and know how to manage the policy processes affecting the natural and human ecosystems on which they work.
  • To achieve the long-term support from society, these teams must communicate their visions effectively (which implies not only knowing how to transmit information but also how to listen and wait for the right moment) so that they be accepted and eventually actively backed by most of society.

If I had to summarize the general idea behind this book, which is a totally personal view of what the conservation profession should consist of, I would do so as follows:

Our task is to maintain and/or restore natural ecosystems with most of their original components, thereby generating maximum benefits for and support from society, via public processes managed by properly trained and well-led, highly motivated teams that know how to communicate with key stakeholders and the general public in an effective way.

Said in a less precise and technical way that may be more motivating to my fellow conservationists: Let us not be stopped by fear, laziness, or boredom. Together we can and must generate more complete and natural ecosystems than those that currently exist, and this must be achieved with broad-based public support.

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