In The Field

Does conserving Africa help Africans?

The first two plenary sessions have taken as their subject conservation in Africa. Yesterday, Yaa Ntiamoa-Baidu, a Ghanaian conservationist with positions in government, academia, and at an NGO, recounted a story from youth. She returned to her hometown after graduating from college and announced her plan to manage wildlife for a living. An old man took her to task, asking what such a career could possibly do to help their impoverished village.

And while Ntiamoa-Baidu spent the rest of her talk asking how conservationists can better demonstrate how their projects improve the lot of local people, there remained a suggestion of doubt. Perhaps not all conservation projects do improve lives.

Ntiamoa-Baidu looked at 50 random World Wildlife Fund programs in Africa. While 92% of project managers felt that their projects were helping develop the community, very few of these projects had built in any way to measure or show this. There is no data. And, according to Ntiamoa-Baidu, to convince politicians, donors and local people, you need the data.

Today, Stuart Pimm threw up a side with a series of tough questions on it. Do development efforts develop anything? Do conservation efforts conserve anything “or do we merely have conversations about it”? Does development necessarily lead to conservation (“I think we all have a sinking feeling that that might not be the case”, he said)? And does conservation necessarily lead to development?

As he talked through the slide he said “I hope you are squirming uncomfortably in your seats.”

This issue is not new. People have been advancing and questioning the notion that there is some real tie between conservation and development for some time. Whether it is a real relationship that holds good across contexts or just wishful thinking is the question, and one I am not prepared to answer. But in Africa, where dire poverty, HIV/AIDS and what Pimm called “inept governments” are the order of the day, one clearly cannot just waltz around saving the landscape without taking account of the people. It is their land, after all, and most of them use it every day.

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