Patrick Kipalu is a natural resource management and human rights expert from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He directs the Africa program of the Rights and Resources Initiative.
For years, global conservation organizations, donors and development institutions have called on African governments to set aside more of their national territories for conservation. Such calls were at the center of the recent Africa Protected Areas Congress, held in July in Rwanda, and are growing ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference COP27 in Egypt in November.
According to a UN report, approximately 17% of the world’s land mass is currently protected by governments and conservation organizations. Given its immense size, Africa is expected to make a powerful contribution to achieving a global goal of placing 30-50% of the planet under the protection of designated authorities.
Among landmasses, Africa is at the greatest risk of nature loss, despite being the world’s smallest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions (at 3.8%). China contributes nearly a quarter of global emissions, followed by the US at 19% and the EU at 13%. Yet the EU has earmarked 25% for land conservation, China 15% and the US 12%. By contrast, many African governments have already set aside 35-40% of their territories for conservation, but they are under increasing pressure to make even more use of their natural assets.
While protected ecosystems play a critical role in climate mitigation and adaptation, historically protection has involved the eviction of indigenous and local inhabitants. And, as important biodiversity conservation areas often overlap with territories claimed by indigenous and local communities, expanding protection has important implications for their survival. A 2018 study published in Nature found that 40% of all terrestrial protected areas on Earth overlap with lands controlled by Indigenous peoples. Rather than blindly supporting these efforts, the international community needs to ask what protection by governments or conservation agencies means for the people living in these areas, and whether it is even effective.
NGOs like Global Witness and Oakland Institute have tracked a growing list of human rights abuses, displacement, militarized violence, and loss of land and community livelihoods in pursuit of conservation goals. For example, the Tanzanian government is evicting the Maasai from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to create space for conservation and trophy hunting. The Ugandan government has done the same for the Benet of Mount Elgon. According to the Rights and Resources Initiative, around 136 million people have been displaced as part of the process of formally protecting Earth’s land.
But as research now shows, the biggest threats are not the communities that have coexisted peacefully with these ecosystems. These include commercial-scale agriculture, mining, infrastructure development, and even the agencies responsible for protecting them.
Research has also shown that lands legally recognized and conserved by communities store more carbon and create significantly less emissions and deforestation than lands administered by governments or private entities. For example, indigenous lands in the Amazon (29% of the basin) sequestered 5.6 billion Mg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) from 2001 to 2020. These lands also cost much less to establish and maintain than conventional protected areas.
In June, I spent a week with the Ogiek, an indigenous hunter-gatherer community that has been fighting for land rights with the government of Kenya for over 90 years. Part of their land was taken during the colonial period in the early 20th century, and the government has been trying to evict the community from the rest of the land ever since. A total of 224,000 acres have been stolen in the name of conservation and protection of “pristine wilderness”. Today, around 80,000 Ogiek live in the Mount Elgon forest area on around 42,000 acres of land straddling the borders of Kenya and Uganda.
I accompanied colleagues and two freelance journalists to Mount Elgon. Packed into an all-terrain vehicle heading west on one of the only paved roads we would see for the next few days, we stopped quickly at a hilltop viewpoint that once belonged to the Ogiek . Today, the Kenya Forest Service is replacing the area’s natural resources with plantations of non-native trees.
Most of the tree plantings I’ve seen in the lower mountain region of Mount Elgon Forest Reserve were part of the controversial shamba system that the Forest Service has implemented in one form or another over the past hundred years. years, which involves replacing native trees with plantations of fast-growing, imported foreign species such as eucalyptus from Australia. These trees are then sold to commercial logging companies and felled.
Tree plantations like the ones I have seen are harmful to both wildlife and the natural forest environment, as they limit the ability of bees to pollinate, as foreign trees do not flower in the forest.
As our all-terrain vehicle ascended through the ancestral territory of the Ogiek, the landscape changed dramatically. Trees became denser and more diverse, plantations all but disappeared, and goats and other cattle became more populated. We quickly realized that this was no coincidence.
The Ogiek, who live from the sale of cow’s milk and forest products, have imagined various innovations to protect the local fauna and flora based on their ancestral knowledge. From building goat enclosures to protect the forest’s native livestock from hyenas, to mapping and maintaining 2,000 beehives, preserving local wildlife and biodiversity is central to their existence. The landscape is home to 400 plant species and 144 bird species.
One result of their efforts is the territory’s growing elephant population. African forest elephants do not eat alien plant species and have migrated west to live (and thrive) in Ogiek customary territory where they find abundant food. Community elders told me that due to poaching in the national park, elephants prefer to roam their territory – which is closely guarded by community members – especially before giving birth.
During my trip, I met Cosmas Murunga, a community elder who experienced firsthand the loss of community land. Cosmas told me that the most important rule in the community statutes for the 33 Ogiek clans is to respect the environment. The statutes, which are accepted by each clan, include regulating the collection of firewood by allowing community members to collect only dead wood for fire and prohibiting the burning of charcoal, agriculture on a commercial scale and poaching.
Cosmas told me that the Ogiek came up with these laws to protect their ecosystem even as the community struggled to protect their land rights. “History tells us we’ve been here since time immemorial – it’s still our land.”
A few recent developments have brought some hope to displaced communities like the Ogiek.
In July, the Africa Protected Areas Congress gave indigenous and local community leaders across the continent an unprecedented platform to show the powerful link between conservation and securing community land rights. The leaders told policymakers, governments and conservation funders that the answer to the global biodiversity and climate crises is not to empty forests of their custodians – it is legal recognition and protection. land and forest rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including women and youth. , and investing in their traditional knowledge and conservation systems. “Our trauma, our rights and our wish to be Africa’s leading stewards of natural resources must not, once again, be swept under the rug,” said Kenyan activist Milka Chepkorir, who represented the indigenous Sengwer group in Congress.
Similarly, Africa Climate Week ended last week in Gabon with calls for increased funding and fairer solutions to the twin climate and biodiversity crises.
Nevertheless, we expect calls for the expansion of protected areas to continue to increase as climate disasters become more frequent. But the burden cannot fall disproportionately on African countries while little funding reaches communities. This time, African leaders must break free from colonial conservation models and let indigenous and local peoples take the lead, as has always been their right.
The opinions expressed here reflect those of the author.
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