Lessons in Community-Based Conservation from Africa

The WRDC is pleased to introduce Ed Meyer as one of our bloggers. Mr. Meyer oversaw the Utah Governor’s rural economic development programs for 25 years before retiring to Kanab, UT. Currently he contracts with Southern Utah University to provide entrepreneur support in Kane County. He runs his own consulting firm dealing with rural incentives, serves on the Kanab City Council, and serves on the board of a local non-profit that promotes events that incorporate education, business and the arts.

Without further ado, here’s Ed.

Last fall a marvelous film called “Milking the Rhino” was screened in Kanab as part of the Southern Utah Documentary Film Festival.  After the film, I had the honor of facilitating a discussion with the film’s co-producer Jeanne McGill.  Though the film is about Africa’s Himba Tribe in Namibia and the Maasai Tribe in Kenya, the land management model they are using is one we should consider here in the American West.

First let me set the stage by explaining that the Himba and Maasai have traditionally survived largely through cattle ranching.  Though they raise their cattle in different ways for different purposes, these African tribes share a common economic bond with the West’s cattlemen.  They also face a similar challenge in that they have traditionally been denied access to adjacent lands.  In their case, these lands have been locked up in game reserves patrolled by armed guards.  Historically these guards have shot tribesmen who touch one foot inside the reserves.  Though the situation in the American West is certainly not as dramatic, ranchers are regularly being forced from public lands, largely due to environmental challenges. Another similarity is that the Himba and Maasai have often lost livestock to lions and other predators that are protected inside the reserves.  Certainly this draws a comparison to issues in the American West such as the reintroduction of the wolf and other predatory species.

In recent years, the governments of Namibia and Kenya have recognized that the ongoing conflicts with tribal cattlemen are counterproductive.  They have also realized the tremendous market for eco-tourism and the potential value this new economic opportunity could provide for the Himba and Maasai.  In order to take advantage of this opportunity, they have implemented a management tool we might consider in the American West called community-based conservation.

What the African governments have done is create conservation districts incorporating the lands within the traditional game reserves and allowed the local tribesmen to make management decisions.  Typically these decisions might address issues like whether predators that threaten the cattle should be relocated for the benefit of eco-tourists or whether they need to be destroyed, perhaps by a hunter willing to pay a premium.  Another example was whether portions of the game reserve that had previously been off limits for cattle grazing should be opened during times of drought.  The film’s title “Milking the Rhino” comes from the decision tribesmen were forced to make when white rhinos were tramping fields and destroying crops.  The tribesmen recognized that the white rhino was one of the most popular animals for the ecotourist and decided to relocate it in hopes of “milking the rhino” for tourist dollars.   While the jury is still out regarding how effective these community-based conservation districts will be, it is significant that each tribe now has a new eco-tourism lodge created through collaboration with professional managers.  The lodges provide jobs for natives and the profits are shared with the tribes.  Profits are negotiated with the tribes and, if the managers can’t come to an agreement, the tribe has the authority to order them from the land.

I’d like to ask the readers of this blog whether they can share examples of how a similar model has been tried in the American West.  Before you answer, let me clarify my request.  I’m not looking for examples where the federal government has created advisory groups to provide input or even grassroots projects the federal government allows to occur because they are consistent with their management plan.  What I am looking for are examples where the federal government has actually turned management of federal lands over to groups of local stakeholders to manage for some purpose.

I understand that there are reasons it would be difficult to implement community-based conservation in the American West.  I expect to hear all kinds of reasons why it can’t be done.  Quite honestly, I’m tired of hearing why things can’t be done.  What I hope to see are examples where something similar is being done and suggestions of what might have to occur to make it happen given our unique public lands models.

If you would like to learn more about the Himba, the Maasai and community-based conservation, I encourage you to visit http://MilkingTheRhino.org.  A related site is www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/milk.html where you can download an outstanding study guide based on the video.  Finally, if you would like Jeanne McGill to speak at an event, please email me at ed@kekanab.com and I can provide contact information.

Images used with permission granted by the filmmaker.

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4 thoughts on “Lessons in Community-Based Conservation from Africa

  1. Very interesting and I am looking forward to reading more of your posts. I am aware of community-based approaches working in Latin America as well. Do you think one of the reasons that we in the U.S. haven’t gone that way is that during the late nineteenth century we badly overgrazed and deforested our public land and so federal agencies were created to protect these lands. Now we are worried about going back to that era.

  2. Welcome Ed! Very interesting concept. I believe somehow, somewhere, there has to be some kind of ownership for these lands as Don’s earlier comment might suggest. When farmers or others did not have a vested interest in the land they were using there was no concern of overgrazing or misuse. Now with much more information at our fingertips both regionally, nationally and worldwide we can better look at similar situations and move toward what works and avoid those things that have failed. It is my belief things will always work for the best for all when everyone involved works together and develops some common goals and guidelines so that everyone’s needs are met for the present and the future. I look forward to the comments that your first request brings.

  3. My guess is that some of the best example may like with our Native American tribes. Perhaps they provide a precedent in that they have been granted a large degree of soveignty under the oversight of the federal government. This precedent suggests to me that similar limited soveignty could be granted to local groups to accomplish specific purposes. Best case example of sound land management decisions by tribal entities would be appreciated.

  4. Don, I’m not sure about all federal agencies. However, I know that the U.S. Forest Service grew from its early leadership by Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was absolutely dedicated to true multiple use concepts. I believe the extensive environmental oversight we see today grew from special interest groups capitalizing on past examples of abuse during a time when those involved in the westward migration made decisions based on expediency and bad science. Actually, there wasn’t much science at all to drawn upon. Today is a whole new world. Our land managers have the expertise to manage an effective multiple use program, but are politically prohibited from doing so. What I would love to see if for there to be a hand full of community based conservation models implemented to see if the outcome would be better than the gridlocked system we currently see. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this will be allowed in the current political environment. Though the price of these experiments failing would be minimal given their limited nature, the implications of success are something that is unacceptable to those currently dictating public lands policies.

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