Can you save animals without sacrificing people?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014 00:52 GMT

Su Mar Win, 33, walks into her banana fields where elephants came to look for food, in Kyar Chaung, Myanmar. The villagers live in constant fear of wild elephants after animals started attacking humans some 15 years ago. Feb 6, 2013 by REUTERS/Minzayar

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Conserving wildlife doesn't have to mean people go hungry.

It’s hard to decide which is more important; poor communities, or the endangered animals and habitats vying for survival. But maybe you don’t have to.

Policies that protect wildlife have in the past harmed poor people by making it more difficult for local communities to make a living off land that they’ve called home for generations even if they hold no formal title.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Speaking at the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty on Monday, experts said land can be shared so that conservation efforts help the poor instead of harming them.  

In Karamoja, one of the poorest regions of Uganda, almost one million people – or 80 per cent of the population – live on less than a dollar a day, their poverty worsened by their struggles to graze their cattle. In the 1960s, the government cut people’s access to more than 90 percent of the land. Local people lost their grazing lands overnight.

In 2002, the Ugandan Parliament made changes to improve things. But more than 10 years later, locals still don’t know how their rights have changed. Huge swathes of land are reserved for wildlife protection, forest conservation and mining exploration. Communities in the Karamoja region are allowed to use less than a quarter of it. As politicians and some community leaders find ways to profit from the land, locals are not permitted to use it.

At the root of the problem is the fact that the community does not own the land. They may have lived on it for generations, but this is not documented or officially recognized by the government.

This is repeated throughout Africa where poor communities are denied access to natural resources.

“Even if people have lived on the land for generations, they don’t have many rights to the resources on that land,” says Celine Salcedo-La Viña at the World Resources Institute, which has done a survey of resource rights in 48 African countries. The state may claim everything from oil, to water, to forests for itself, she explained.

So countries around the world have been developing solutions that enable them to protect the plants and animals on a piece of land – or put the land to economic use – without harming the traditional communities that make their living on it. For example, the RESEX system in Acre, a province deep in the Brazilian Amazon, has helped shield land from deforestation by giving indigenous communities the right to tap rubber and farm land, but not cut down the forest, said Basstian Philip Reydon from Unicamp in Brazil.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the African Wildlife Foundation has worked with local governments to find ways to expand protected areas in a way that benefits local communities – such as by paying them to provide conservation services.

Some of these models could be applied in Karamoja, says Eddie Nsamba-Gayiiya, an expert on land rights in the region. An important first step in Karamoja would be for the government to recognise the communal land rights of the people, he said. Otherwise it’s too easy for corrupt officials and businesses to take their land away from them, but he’s hopeful that things are about to change.

“The communities now are getting aware of their rights and they’re going to make noise.”

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