Breaking down borders in Africa

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[CAPE TOWN] One major focus of last week’s World Parks Congress in Durban was the efforts by sub-Saharan nations to create 22 vast transfrontier conservation areas known as ‘peace parks’. The areas designated will span 475,000 sq km of land across 15 countries, stretching from Lake Victoria in the North to South Africa.

Peace parks are a way for neighbouring countries to cooperate on a common concern – protecting biological diversity – by pulling down frontier fences in ecologically rich spots that straddle their shared border.

The immediate and most visible goal is to allow both tourists and wildlife to roam freely over immense tracts of land without compromising national sovereignty. But, as their name implies, peace parks have another purpose: to improve relations between the participating countries – some of whom have even been recently at war – by encouraging joint management of the shared land.

Whatever the long-term political significance, it is already clear that these enormous swathes of land eliminate some of the conservation headaches created by fences, which often slice arbitrarily through ecosystems and traditional migration routes. They also provide an opportunity for local people to help manage and profit from the land, as it is increasingly widely recognised that many rural communities can make a better living out of conservation-related activities such as tourism, game farming and controlled hunting than they can out of traditional farming.

Since 2000, six transfrontier parks have been launched in Southern Africa. The flagship is the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which stretches over almost 35,000 sq km of land from Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park. A joint monitoring board and ministerial committee manage the park.

Other parks now in place are the

  • Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (South Africa and Botswana);
  • Ais Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park (South Africa and Namibia); and
  • Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area (South Africa and Lesotho).

Parks still at the proposal stage include the

  • Limpopo-Shashe Conservation Area (Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe);
  • Okavango-Upper Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia); and
  • Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area (Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland). 

‘Greening’ Africa

A joint study by the South Africa-based Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and the Development Bank of Southern Africa estimated that collectively, the transfrontier parks could attract up to eight million visitors to the region every year and create much-needed jobs; the World Tourism and Travel Council estimates that these could eventually total more than 1.2 million. "It’s so logical it makes you wonder why it wasn’t thought of before,” says Professor Willem Van Riet, executive vice chairman of PPF.

But the same report estimates that getting all 22 parks up and running over the next five to ten years will cost more than $200 million. This means that it is good news that most African leaders have given their backing to the parks, regarding them as integral to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – a programme spearheaded by a group of the continent’s leaders that aims to encourage good governance and economic policies across the continent in exchange for favourable trading terms and development assistance from richer countries.

By placing conservation high on the agenda of governments and international donor agencies, the parks help shift the focus of Africa’s leaders beyond the purely socio-economic. They highlight the need to address ‘green’ as well as social concerns, a need that has become increasingly clear as environmental neglect and growing populations take their toll on Africa’s rich biological diversity.

This change in attitude was evident at a recent meeting of the African Union in Maputo, Mozambique, where leaders adopted a revised African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, aimed at improving conservation standards. International groups including the World Bank, the Global Environment Fund and the European Union have added their support to the peace parks initiative, pledging significant amounts of funds.

Unrealistic expectations?

But while few oppose the notion of transfrontier conservation, some conservationists warn there may be unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Not all the parks will create jobs and promote tourism, according to John Hanks, a former executive director of the Peace Parks Foundation who now works for the US-based group Conservation International.

“It is irresponsible to raise expectations about immediate significant tourism opportunities in areas that have little or no infrastructure,” he says. “And some areas that may be of great importance for biodiversity have little appeal for tourism.”

A related concern is that much of the money paid by foreign tourists may never benefit the region they visit. Proponents of the parks concede the difficulties of attracting tourists to remote areas, and say that the issue of “currency leakage” is not unique to conservation. But many tourists book tours in their home country, or with local tour operators who send the revenue generated straight back to their overseas headquarters.

Another criticism is that transfrontier parks rapidly propel local populations into a new kind of land-use, giving them little time to adapt. Salim Fakir, director of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in South Africa points out that this can pose serious risks to poor people who may not have the power or skills to negotiate benefits – such as a share in the economic spin-offs from the parks – particularly if they were moved off ancestral land in the past. Additionally, in places where rural communities have been displaced, they may be given less secure forms of livelihood; and where there are existing tensions between factions in local communities, the parks may be a source of social tension.

Homegrown opposition

South Africa has already found that co-managing land with indigenous communities and officials from the South African National Parks board can be difficult, says independent consultant David Grossman. In the Ais Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, for example, the parks board has done little to transfer managerial skills to the local Nama people, and conservation efforts threaten existing power relations and economic activities within the community. There have also been major disputes over how much livestock should be allowed to graze in the park, as this impedes efforts to safeguard local biodiversity.

Tensions have also arisen around the Makuleke people, who were forced off land in Kruger National Park during apartheid. Since the ending of apartheid, attempts have been made to balance people’s claims to their ancestral land against conservation imperatives. After democratic elections in 1994, the Makuleke reached a settlement with the parks board, agreeing to use the land in way that was compatible with conservation, for example by forbidding agriculture or mining. In return, they received rights to commercial development and sustainable resource use that met conservation objectives.

But there have been long-standing disputes between the Makuleke and the parks board, especially over the local community’s rights to derive income from controlled hunting. According to Grossman, this experience highlights the reluctance of officials to cede control, even to a relatively cohesive and well-organised community.

Meanwhile, another dispute is simmering in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where the San people and the parks board have widely differing views over how the land should be managed. Grossman warns that in the long run, conservation objectives may be compromised if communities discover that they are unable to reap the anticipated social and economic benefits, and if their concerns are not adequately addressed.

Unequal partners

This isn’t the only hurdle. Another threat to the parks is the possibility of political or economic instability in one or more of the countries involved. In the Gonarezhou National Park, for example, militants backed by Zimbabwe’s ruling party have seized land. This has forced the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park project to go ahead without Zimbabwe’s full participation.

Furthermore, the countries involved in the Great Limpopo Park find that they are not sharing the benefits equally. South Africa’s part, Kruger Park, is attracting about a million visitors each year, while only a few thousand visit the parkland located in and around Mozambique. The park revenue is split according to the number of tourists attracted, highlighting the dilemma facing poorer countries, namely that they need tourists’ money to develop and maintain their facilities, yet without such facilities, they are unable to attract visitors in the first place.

Not surprisingly, there are already disputes between Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa over how the revenue should be shared. South Africa argues that since Kruger is already a huge draw for international tourism, it should receive the bulk of the money. But Fakir warns that South Africa’s neighbours, although welcoming the country’s expertise in managing parks, are wary and fearful of how it dominates the regional economy.

Ironically, then, such experiences indicate that there is potential for a peace park to trigger further animosity if it is not managed properly. Despite some reservations, however, most conservationists agree that transfrontier parks are Southern Africa’s best hope of protecting its fragile environment and stimulating its tourism industry in a way that encourages fruitful collaboration with its neighbours, and does not sacrifice the needs of rural communities.

Its efforts were back by The World Parks Congress last week, which emphasised the conservation values that underpin the ethos of transfrontier parks. These values state that protected areas play a vital role in sustainable development, and cannot be managed as conservation islands divorced from the social and economic context in which they exist.