Conservation decisions must protect the livelihoods of people living in Africa

Women demonstrate in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley against the export of wild animals from the Maasai Mara National Park. Reuters/Antony Gitonga

182 member states of the world’s biggest convention on wildlife conservation have committed – at this year’s gathering – to consider how trade decisions impact community livelihoods.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates trade in threatened species. But can its decisions improve livelihoods? More pointedly, can its decisions undermine the rights of communities to development, food security or their cultural heritage?

These questions feed into a wider debate about the relationship between conservation and development. Models of “fortress conservation”, “green grabbing” or “fences and fines” have been seen to place the interests of nature ahead of the development needs of local communities. This has generated resentment among some communities towards wildlife protection.

A broad range of multilateral frameworks such as Rio+20, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Sustainable Development Goals seek to address this. They envision a mutually beneficial and synergistic relationship between conservation and development objectives.

CITES decisions can improve the livelihoods of people who live in Africa. But only if the convention connects with other multilateral environmental efforts to protect biodiversity. It also needs to avoid imposing external norms without due regard for local realities. For example, in the absence of any ivory trade, member states should commit to other ways to finance conservation and improve local communities’ livelihoods. After all, these are the people on the front line of the battle against poaching.

Ivory trade for the good of the communities?

Probably the most controversial issue at this year’s CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) is the question of how to protect African elephants. This is an instructive lens through which to address how trade decisions may impact livelihoods.

From 2007 to 2014 roughly 27,000 African elephants a year have been killed illegally to satisfy demand for ivory in East Asia. But the threat to the elephants is geographically differentiated.

CITES protects some species from trade altogether by listing them on Appendix I if they are critically endangered. It lists other species on Appendix II if trade in that species will not undermine its sustainability, but requires regulation. Species can also be listed by regional population. For example, all African elephants are listed under Appendix I, except for the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which are listed on Appendix II.

The elephant populations in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are in healthy condition. These countries proposed that a decision-making mechanism be established to allow trade in ivory from Appendix II listed elephants. The proposal was rejected by a two-thirds majority at the convention.

Namibia and Zimbabwe have submitted additional proposals to have their elephant populations removed from CITES appendix protection listing altogether. This would allow them to trade their ivory in any way they see fit.

These countries argue that proceeds from ivory sales could make a vital contribution to financing conservation efforts. Communities would acquire some of the proceeds from ivory stockpile sales. This would provide them with an incentive to conserve elephant populations. And elephant numbers would rise as a result of conservation efforts boosted by regulated trade generating revenue for communities through tourism.

Proponents of trade legalisation argue that efforts to ban ivory sales have failed and in fact have boosted corruption and illicit trade.

These arguments carry understandable appeal but also entail risks. A decision to trade may have irreversible consequences. For instance, the natural rate of ivory supply seems unlikely to be able to satisfy demand and runs the risk of igniting currently dormant demand. Plus, maintaining a high price for ivory would maintain the current incentive to poach.

South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are correct to point out that financing for conservation is a serious challenge. But it does not follow that a regulated trade in ivory is the solution.

How to improve livelihoods

A new reality is emerging in which the world’s largest domestic ivory markets are likely to be shut down. The US has recently closed theirs and China is likely to follow suit soon. In the absence of trading ivory, other solutions have to be found to fund conservation and improve the livelihoods of communities living on the front line of conservation efforts.

Some suggestions that have been put forward include:

  • A global biodiversity tax “to fund protected area management at scale in areas where there are no alternative forms of conservation land use”. Global consumers can currently pay for carbon credits, for instance, but a tax is a more efficient way of achieving a similar end.

  • Enabling communities living with or near wildlife to become drivers of conservation. Community members can no longer be seen as passive beneficiaries of tourism partnerships.

  • Better governance structures for communities to derive benefits from protecting natural resources. Community based natural resource management appears to be working in places like Namibia. A well-governed hunting industry seems to be a key success factor here, but this is debatable. Either way, well-governed hunting is not easily transposed into other contexts. The hunting industry is often guilty of regulatory abuse. Because of such abuse, Botswana has chosen to abandon hunting altogether. Some experts worry, though, that this decision may have unintended negative consequences.

  • A move away away from community trusts towards community land rights. The challenges faced by Botswana demonstrate the difficulty with trusts. Community trusts apply for concessions over communal land and are racked with governance difficulties. Community land rights, to the contrary, allow individual communities to make decisions about how they use their own land. Conservation land-use incentives are built in.

Critical to consider local values

Finally, the reality is that global norms often don’t fit with local value sets.

A crucial interlocutor between supply and demand is values – what people believe about elephants and ivory. This means that a total ivory trade ban may not produce an immediate reversal of the poaching pandemic. Communities that resent the imposition of external norms may respond by poaching.

Being aware of these dynamics may go a long way to improving the probability of conservation success. Spesurvival ultimately depends on improving community livelihoods and understanding local values.