Peace parks and people’s rights

23 November 2016 | Story Birgit Ottermann

Southern Africa’s peace parks have given animals a regional passport to move freely across international borders. Wildlife migration routes have been restored, and previously fragmented ecosystems reconnected. And yet the people who used to call those regions home are not enjoying the same liberties. Instead, they have been disconnected from their environment and heritage, and their clans remain separated by political borders.

“We have unified policies around wildlife and management, but are reluctant to do the same for people,” says Maano Ramutsindela, professor of environmental and geographical science at the University of Cape Town. “Every peace park should be obligated to contribute to the communities on both sides of the border in a meaningful way.”

A geographer by training, Ramutsindela has always been fascinated by the social side of geography. 

“I am very interested in how geography impacts on people (whether it be where they live, land issues or access to resources) and how it is often involved in the creation of spaces of conflict and violence. One of my first interests in conflict was actually the drawing of provincial and municipal borders – a conflict that is still ongoing today. Every time there is a demarcation, there is conflict!”

Ramutsindela developed an interest in peace parks as they were changing the geography of the region, transcending colonial borders and reuniting ecological systems. “What attracted me as a researcher to the peace parks project was that it was recreating space; not just for the animals, but also for the people of the region. Moving people from one space to another impacts on their identity and how they live.”

As an example, he mentions the apartheid government’s policy of restricting people to living in certain areas: “Over time, people got used to that new space and started to believe that it was ‘normal’ – the way they really should be living. But what happened to their resources?”

When you take away people’s resources, whether it be through political ideology, conservation or other means, they have to adjust to a new way of living; and this holds consequences for both the people and the environment itself.”

According to Ramutsindela, the peace parks project came at just the right time, as it brought together all the questions he was grappling with.

“The mission of transfrontier conservation areas (peace parks) in southern Africa is very noble. It aims to promote biodiversity, sustainable development and peaceful co-existence. However, not enough thought was given to the impact these new spaces would have on the people who previously inhabited them,” says Ramutsindela.

Empowering local people

“While the animals gained habitat, the locals in these remote areas lost theirs, and received very little in return. The few who can read and write can work in the peace-park projects, or as tour guides; but the ordinary people who would have otherwise used the land to feed their families are left impoverished and desperate. These are the same people who until very recently witnessed the violence, torture and killings inflicted by South Africa’s apartheid government on the country’s borders – atrocities that have never been addressed properly.”
Maano Ramutsindela, professor of environmental and geographical science at the University of Cape Town.
Ramutsindela remarks that these same violent tactics are now used to combat rhino poaching and defend the peace parks. The Kruger Park, which is the core of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park between Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, has rapidly militarised, in a desperate attempt to save endangered rhinos from poachers.

“While saving the rhino is a very important conservation effort, we must also start empowering and including the local people. If we keep ignoring them, we are sending out the message that they don’t matter – that we only care about the animals and the environment. Frustration and anger will increase, which in turn will fuel the conflict in an already unstable region.”

The majority of the communities in those remote areas are very poor; and on losing their land, have no way to provide for their families. As a result, it is said that they are easily tempted to get involved in illegal activities such as harbouring poachers for quick money.

Ramutsindela warns that this has become a vicious circle. “As the poaching crisis intensifies, more land is acquired to create buffer zones against the poachers. As a result, more people are losing their land and livelihood… and so the conflict continues.”

He suggests that local people be given some basic rights and responsibilities, via benefit-sharing schemes that have minimum guarantees. “Some kind of ethical code is necessary. If people have some rights to the land and earn some benefits, they will appreciate conservation efforts, as well as develop a sense of dignity and purpose.

“In Namibia, for example, the government has given local people wildlife rights. They don’t own the land, but at least they have access to the land and the animals, while also looking after them – they are part of the conservation process.”

Ramutsindela also believes that the semi-nomadic lifestyle of ethnic groups such as the Nama and San should be recognised, by allowing them to migrate freely across the borders. “The San’s habitat, for example, has always been the Kalahari. Open it up for them!” (The Kalahari stretches over parts of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.)

He remarks that people in general are very unwilling to express criticism when it comes to conservation and (especially) the peace parks.

“Though it is a great project, it has had unintended consequences, and we should not be afraid to address those, and ask the difficult questions. We need to bring about more peace in the parks. We have succeeded in redefining the borders for wildlife; now we must do the same for the communities that are still divided by those borders. Involving and improving the lives of the local people will help to increase stability in the peace-park regions, and reduce the potential for future conflict.”

Story by Birgit Ottermann. Feature image by Derek Keats, Flickr. Image of researcher by Michael Hammond.

This article was published in Research & Innovation 2015-16. Click on the image to read the full report.

Research & Innovation 2015-16

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