In the quiet VIP room at the Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda, former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn strikes an amiable pose. He has many reasons to be optimistic.
The IUCN African Protected Area Congress, of which he is the patron, is underway. Over 2,000 delegates from 52 African countries are attending. At last, Africans can chart the way forward in funding the 8,500 protected and conserved areas on the continent. “It has been a long journey, but we are finally here,” he says. “The journey started in 2019, it was disrupted by Covid-19 and a postponement last March. But it is happening.”
The former Ethiopian leader has become a conservation champion, a marked departure from the rough and tumble life as a politician. Besides rethinking the financing model, Hailemariam says it is time to put Africans at the heart of protecting biodiversity, to “decolonise” conservation.
He says those who established parks in Africa did so not to merely conserve but create a playground for the global North and a few people in the global South, where they would come to just enjoy the animals or hunt them for their trophies.
The park founders, he says, focused more on the animals by evicting people from their ancestral lands to pave way for the “fortress conservation” as wildlife was given more priority. “But Africans and other scholars are calling for a rethink in this model because it is not working. Historical and behavioural culture of Africans who were evicted shows they had learnt to live with animals. They were not enemies. They knew how to manage the animals and protect them better than the militarised colonial concepts we inherited.”
Without their involvement in conservation, the local people began to destroy nature due to resentment and lack of understanding on the parks’ delineation.
Yet, Hailemariam says, it is not too late to change. “We’re glad African leaders are buying the idea. But their mind-set needs to change first. Some have the original approach that funding for conservation must come from outsiders. They think they have other pressing priorities,” he says.
This mind-set is slowly changing, he avers, with countries like South Africa, Rwanda and to an extent Kenya, working towards locally based solutions to conserve biodiversity. Two months ago, Hailemariam visited Masai Mara and saw how the wildlife conservancy models work.
Here, local Masai families pull together their land and form one large block. They then look for an operator who sets up a tourist camp with part of the proceeds going back to the local community.
Managers, drivers, tour guides and other personnel in the camps are sourced from the community. But the concept still relies on growing visitor numbers that saw a dip during the pandemic with the community hit hard when tourism funds dried up.
The Pan Africa Conservation Trust fund mooted at the Kigali congress will assist such communities in times of similar adversities.
According to Hailemariam, the framework for the trust fund is in place and “it is only a matter of time before the basket starts receiving funds to conserve Africa’s vast biodiversity”. The fund, he says, will shift the prevailing narrative that Africa can only be defined by problems whose solutions are crafted outside the continent.
He says: “Look at the recent floods in many parts of Europe. Look at the current heat waves pounding the same continent. Most of these happen because we have messed up with the environment. What they don’t know is that Africa can save them since our continent is the custodian of unique biodiversity not found anywhere else, such as the Congo rainforest or the Sudd in Sudan.”
The former prime minister’s love for nature began when he was nine, the inquisitive age when boys love the outdoors. But severe famine that ravaged his country despite the natural resources therein made him desire to learn more about nature, graduating later in water and environmental engineering.
Still, when he was growing up in Boloso Sore District, Southern Ethiopia, wildlife was abundant. But he has seen a steady decline in certain species, some completely disappearing.
Some cultural practices threatened to confine the animals to the annals of history. In Africa, when boys were circumcised, animals found themselves on the wrong side, and in south Ethiopia, it was common for initiates to kill them as a rite of passage.
“Boys coming of age had to demonstrate their bravery by killing wild animals,” says Hailemariam. “It appeared to be lots of fun but what we did not know was that the practice was destroying nature. The rhino has disappeared from our country and only relocation from other African countries can bring it back. Africa can halt such biodiversity loss now,” he says.
Such practices have since died down but climate change is accelerating loss of biodiversity. Hailemariam is optimistic that the current generation of Africans will stand up for conservation.
“Our young people will do it using indigenous knowledge passed on from past generations,” he says. “It is time for Africa to set its own conservation agenda.”