Monday, October 6, 2003 

How Conservation is Destroying Africa's Traditional People

South Africa is, however, reversing the plight of traditional people. Under the apartheid system, blacks were made landless and private game ownership was concentrated among whites, who controlled tourism, writes DAVID KAIZA 

IT is getting to midday, but the sun has not come out in South Africa's Kwazulu Natal province. In the cold rain, bare-chested Zulu warriors are re-enacting the 1850s succession battle between Shaka's great grandsons, Mbuyazi and Chetswayo, for a group of tourists.

Their new war ironically is against traditional conservation and tourism, and it is one which, under the ANC government, they are winning. So they dance in the rain to earn their own money with that the chief executive officer of a South African tourist body, Sheryl Carouls, calls "dignity" the type "that only work can give."

From September 8 to 17, in Durban, the World Parks Congress held its fifth conference since 1952. This year's meeting was intended to find ways of tackling the conflict between conservation and society. It is a battle that traditional people living in park areas in East Africa are losing, says Meitamei ole Dapash, who champions the rights of the Maasai in Kenya.

The Karimojong and Maasai are the prominent groups mentioned in the conflict tourism, conservation and local communities. But there are also others like the Batwa in western Uganda and the Ogiek in Kenya. Wild animals pass on diseases to them or they are displayed as curiosities for foreign visitors. At worst, they are forcibly relocated to create room for animals.

South Africa is, however, reversing the plight of traditional people. Under the apartheid system, blacks were made landless and private game ownership was concentrated among whites, who controlled tourism.

Like in most countries, the interests of traditional culture were seen as opposed to the interests of conservation. The ikhwani and ncema reeds that the Zulu used to make mats, the animal skins they used for shields and other regalia were declared "protected" by the wildlife policy makers. Locked out too were the plants they needed for muti (medicine).

In this way, conservation amounted to an assault on culture. In post-apartheid South Africa, though, the emphasis has shifted to placing people first, leading to a drive to exploit tourism not just as a revenue generating activity, but as a means of providing employment.

Unemployment among black people in Kwazulu Natal is high. Around the Siyaya Park area itself, it is said to be as high as 72 per cent. Illiteracy is rampant as are crime and HIV/Aids.

Gina Thompson, programme manager of the Nyoni Community Centre in the Kwazulu Natal area where the battle dance is taking place, says there is a market for Zulu culture. "We did research and found that there was incredible interest in Zulu culture and that it was under-exploited," she told this writer.

Now, controlled exploitation of the ecosystem has enabled communities to go back to craft production, and freed them to earn money doing what they know best.

It is such a policy that activists say is lacking in East Africa. The statistics are stark: 48 children orphaned by wildlife in Amboseli National Park are seeking compensation; in Uganda, over 200 people last year died in Karamoja from famine, because Kidepo National Park occupies the fertile territories in Karamoja. Diseases spread by vectors around wild animals are rampant. 

Conversely, wildlife bodies continue to make millions of dollars from national parks.

According to ole Dapash, women in Amboseli have to walk 15 km to fetch water daily, when an investment of Ksh400,000 ($5,000) might have fixed the water problem. (See story on page III).

Being aware of these issues, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) met in Durban recently and recommended that tourism provide a springboard for the development of traditional communities.

The so-called indigenous people are regarded as the ultimate victims of global capital, under pressure to give up the often resource rich lands they live on. The clashes are spectacular. Royal Dutch/Shell, the world's biggest oil giant stands accused of fuelling the execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro Wiwa. The tourism industry in Kenya is said to be crushing the Maasai and in Uganda, the American power company, AES, before it pulled out, found itself fending off accusations that it was out to destroy the sacred areas of the Basoga people.

At the Durban conference, the stage was set for the clash with activists. Shell's director of planning, Adrian Loader, started his speech with a description of family life scuba diving with his wife and children in order to give them an education in ecology. Clearly, he was anticipating hostility. And it took no time for an activist to jump to the floor and fire back: "Ken Saro Wiwa and his family are not scuba diving today."

IUCN director Achim Steiner cut him short. For IUCN, getting the big polluting companies on the conservation board itself was victory enough without having to scupper it with what is described as "tree hugging" or extreme environmentalism. The pragmatism of IUCN did not go down well activists who continue to see conservation and the extraction industry as enemies of traditional people.

The Ken Saro Wiwa debacle threw big industry off balance. The number lining up to be seen as "green" keeps growing. At Durban, it became clear that tourism is probably moving into a "green" phase which it will be judged by its treatment of local communities.

Conservation Corporation Africa (CCA) is one of the giants of tourism in Africa. According to Les Carlisle, the environment manager of CCA, the company pays up to $1.1 million in salaries to local people in Tanzania as salary. It operates among the Maasai community (who remain evictees of wildlife conservation) and runs health and educational programmes for them. In the past year, CCA says it gave $98,000 to the community.

"Conservation and ecotourism can only succeed if they have the support of the people most involved," said Faustine Kobero, CCA's Kleins Camp manager, adding that they gave local schoolchildren the same tours as tourists.

Sir Robert Wilson, president of the International Council on Metals and Minerals, also CEO of Rio Tinto, the world's most powerful mining company, said his company was contemplating dropping its plans to extract uranium from the Jabiluka mine in the Kakado National Park in north Australia because of the impact it would have on the Mirar people.

What was victory to IUCN was a compromise to traditional people, who rejected the recommendation that the extraction and tourism industries work to the benefit of traditional people as condescending and duly voted against it. They said they were not consulted in drawing up the recommendation.

"I take this issue of benefit beyond boundaries with a pinch of salt," ole Dapash told The EastAfrican. "If the decisions that have been taken in the past 10 years have not worked, why should this one work? We are only committing to new slogans."

The idea that people living near protected areas must benefit from the area itself has been in vogue since the 1990s.

In Uganda, up to 20 per cent of funds generated from tourism are given to the communities surrounding tourist parks. In South Africa, 10 per cent of gate collections go to a community fund that then builds classrooms or health centres or whatever it is that the community feels is in its interest.

Bigger issues remain. The pressure placed on communities by investment continues unabated. According to Joji Carino, who works for the Tebtebba Foundation (Indigenous Centre for International Policy, Research, and Education), mining occupies up to 40 per cent of the lands of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines.

Mining, because of its resources, gets easier access to lands with delicate eco-systems, while traditional peoples can be easily evicted to create room for tourism.

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