Conservation community must have conversations around power

Soldiers, loyal to Burkina Faso's latest coup leader Capt. Ibrahim Traore, are pictured in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, October 14, 2022. [AP photo]

The recent coups in the West African countries of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have brought a sharp focus on the power relationship between France and her former colonies.

The military juntas leading these countries have been vocal about the power imbalance between themselves and France and the control of critical natural resources that the European nation seems to have over their resources.

Conversations about control of resources by people outside places where those resources are, are not only at the national level as in the case of these West African countries, but also very much at the level of communities in many parts of Africa.

Control of access to and use of resources equals power and many people and societies endowed with resources do not have the power to determine the destiny of their communities.

In the conservation sector, sometimes derogatorily referred to as the last bastion of colonialism, there is a big debate now about how power (but mainly lack of it) plays a role in shaping the fortunes of communities.

From Loliondo in Tanzania to Andasibe in Madagascar to the Cocoa Belt in Ghana, communities are questioning the power imbalances in the systems they find themselves in. How do big international NGOs have more power than governments in some parts of the country, which are touted as conservation areas?

How is it that areas that communities have traditionally used are now fortresses they cannot access because they are now exclusive conservation areas?

The colonial conservational model can longer serve its needs as the recent return of Amboseli National Park to Kajiado communities through their local government recently demonstrated.

The power conversations are not limited to physical locations; they are also manifested in how the finance flows in support of conservation work are structured, as recent studies by Maliasili found.

The studies, Greening the Grassroots and Rooting for Change found out that local organisations find the funding ecosystem for conservation to be extremely hard to navigate even though they generally agree partnerships between themselves, and international partners are essential.

The reports further point out that the organisations that control the money needed for conservation work often dictate the direction of conservation work even where the model they are pushing has minimal impact or chance of success. 

The power of money in determining the direction of conservation work has often led to mass relocation of people, disenfranchisement and denial of access to areas of religious and spiritual significance.

This is despite these communities being the custodians of the places, they are now being denied access to.

The conservation community must start to have conversations around power. There is a need to shake the system, reimagine it and rebuild it more aligned with the needs of the current realities.

The era of big NGOs and governments bullying communities into leaving their areas for conservation is gone. Conservation must be with communities.

There is no conservation without communities. Conservation to serve who?

The era of local NGOs appropriating themselves as the community voice and becoming a broker in the relationship with the outside world is also gone.

The era of local elites capturing all benefits due to the members of their communities is also long gone. People are rising against their oppressors, not only at the national level but also at other levels.

Devolution and decentralisation are facts Africa can no longer ignore, and certainly not in conservation.

The power must shift, and since rarely power is given, the communities and other players must force a shift to a dynamic that is more equitable and democratic and serves the man who is the steward of the resource and who bears the cost of living next to nature.


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