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The Militarisation of African Parks | International Master in Applied Ecology
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Posted by on Apr 8, 2016 in Nature | 0 comments

The Militarisation of African Parks

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The creation of protected areas is a vital process for the preservation of natural or near-natural wilderness areas that are free from human intervention. Many protected areas, especially across Africa, are used as conservation tools to protect charismatic megafauna that act as umbrella/flagship species and aid in the conservation of entire ecosystems. Unfortunately, the history of conservation in Africa is fraught social and political turmoil. Very few protected areas that exist today were true wilderness areas free of human intervention at the point of their creation. In order to create supposed wilderness areas, indigenous communities and human settlements were forcibly evicted from their homes under the threat of violence. These protected areas were established under the guise of conservation but were actually used as zones of exclusion to protect the hunting interests of colonial powers. With, nowhere else to go, the evicted communities were forced to try and rebuild their homes and their lives on the other side of the fences.

During the 1980’s there was a dramatic rise in poaching levels in countries across Africa. This increase was attributed to the growing demand for ivory and rhino horn from Asian markets. As a response to this, many African governments and international environmental NGO’s introduced a shoot-to-kill protocol for park rangers and anti-poaching units. In examples such as “Operation Stronghold” of Zimbabwe and “Operation Uhai” of Tanzania (among many others) military units were sent into protected areas with orders to shoot and kill poachers found in the parks. This extreme response was predicated on the characterization of poachers as marauding gangs of highly trained individuals with advanced weapons working for international crime syndicates. This characterization is highlighted by a national geographic article published in January of 1991 which showed the image of an impoverished pygmy man from the Democratic Republic of Congo draped in loincloth. Rather than discussing the socio-economic context of this man’s poverty, the article brands him as an amoral poacher. Instead of asking what led this man to feel he had no choice but to poach elephants in order to provide for his family, the article, environmental NGO’s and African governments called for and implemented a shoot-to-kill policy for all poachers.

After a brief respite from the 1980’s crisis levels of poaching throughout Africa have again increased to dangerous levels. Elephant and rhino populations are being pushed to extinction. The Western Black Rhino has been declared extinct and many believe the African Forest Elephant is not far behind. The response to the current crisis by government and international environmental NGO’s has been remarkably similar to that of the 1980’s crisis. Military units have been sent to protected areas with shoot-to-kill orders to stop the scourge of poaching. It is interesting that all poachers are still portrayed as amoral, merciless killers. Let me be clear, there are many poachers who work for international criminal organisations, but this does not adequately describe all poachers. A large amount of poachers enter protected areas to gain access to the natural resources upon which their lives depend. These people largely emanate from the communities surrounding the game reserves, the same communities who were forcibly evicted from their lands all those years ago.

The creation of partnerships between conservation authorities and the communities surrounding protected areas is of the utmost importance. By allowing military units and game wardens to patrol protected areas and shoot poachers with impunity we have turned these places into war zones; war zones were innocent lives are lost. In Liwonde National Park, Malawi a report produced by the human rights NGO National Initiative for Civil Education (NICE), alleged that park authorities tortured, and murdered members of the community who were found in the national park. Many of these community members were women who were caught illegally fishing using hand line in a protected area. As a punishment, they were raped and sent home without any formal charges brought against them.

The term “poacher” is clearly more complex and nuanced than was previously thought. Another example of this is found in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Botswana Defense Force was called in to assist with the eviction of the Basarwa San “Bushmen” from the area. The San are an ancient African hunter-gatherer tribe that have sustainably used natural resources for thousands of years, but in Botswana their bows and arrows were confiscated as they were thought to be overhunting animal populations. It is through actions like this that we, as Africans, are destroying our heritage.

It is of vital importance that the legacy of violence and conflict between protected areas and the communities surrounding them is addressed. Important and mutually beneficial partnerships have been created between protected areas and the communities surrounding them. The most prominently cited example is the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) from Zimbabwe. More partnerships such as this one are springing up across the continent under the framework of Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). This framework calls for the decentralization of decision making so that the communities dependent on the natural resources are involved in their management. CBNRM is key to ensuring that the goals set out in the Conservation of Biological Diversity (CBD) convention are achieved. The CBD states that conservation cannot negatively affect the livelihoods of indigenous people. We need to ensure that conservation objectives do not allow for the killing of innocent victims. We need to develop our social-ecological research capabilities and apply these to the creation of CBNRM programs to end this legacy of violence and create one of Ubuntu.

For more information on CBNRM projects and how they can be applied successfully, read this article: http://icare.emmc-imae.org/index.php/en/catalog/topics/12-ecosystem-management-restoration/89-community-based-natural-resource-management-in-africa


By: Jeff Dunnink     IMAE edition 2015-2017

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