Silence of the Lambs

Communities in Botswana were sacrificed to further western-imposed conservation approaches by Khama conservation policies

The recent and overwhelming vote in Parliament surely speaks volumes that rural communities living with wildlife have become the Forgotten People.  His Excellency, President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s commitment to listen to the people and make decisions for the people is paramount and commendable – his pledge to leading an inclusive Government with people at the centre of the debate is the recipe for success and prosperity.

While the Masisi Review may be unpalatable to many, his approach is not entirely about hunting.   It’s about appropriate land use, and how to engage rural communities in wildlife-based management – to date there has been a chronic failure to recognise, implement and support community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) in the country.  So, the Masisi Review is about how to bring rural communities to the discussion table, and how to create meaningful and tangible benefits for communities living with wildlife in an appropriate land use context, and to find solutions for human / wildlife conflict. We’re at a critical point – His Excellency’s Parliamentary Committee will consult, investigate and report back to the Office of The President with the facts – not emotion.

Conservation costs money, big money, and if the very people living close to and / or with wildlife don’t benefit, it’s hardly surprising that they’ll look carefully at why they shouldn’t shoot an elephant eating their entire crop for the year, or seek to protect their livestock from hungry predators –  quite apart from protecting human life.  But why is the response in Parliament so surprising?  For some years now communities have sat quietly, waiting in the halls of the Ministry to be given airtime.  It’s their time now, and long overdue.

The Parliamentary Sub-Committee of Cabinet, chaired by Local Government and Rural Development Minister, Hon. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, is encouraged to think out of the box, and consider a new suite of conservation-based management tools. We need to review the focus on militarised approaches to combat poaching and illegal resource use which runs the risk of undermining both human rights and conservation effectiveness. Effective enforcement needs community support, and community support needs effective enforcement: Community-managed game ranches, so successful in Namibia, are wholly relevant and manageable in Botswana, with reduction of human / wildlife conflict in “hot spot zones” where land use conflicts with itself.

Is it so difficult for wealthy, protectionist lobby groups to understand that people need realistic incentives to co-operate in conservation efforts, and be part of a co-management system, rather than being on the “other side”, causing deeper resentment?   It’s now critical that an enabling environment is created, which will provide and support legitimate and functional community institutions – a greater voice at all levels.  These points were all recognised, noted and debated at length at the 2016 United Nations Environment Assembly – and it’s not rocket science.  Just democratic procedure, based on a nation’s sovereign right to make their own decisions for the greater good of the People, and led by politicians elected to serve the nation to the best of their ability.

Enhancing livelihoods and engaging rural communities through conservation now forms an essential part of the CITES conservation approach under The Engagement of Rural Communities and Wildlife, Wild Livelihoods. So, this discussion is not foreign or unheard of for many – some will agree, some will disagree, and some will go to endless (less democratic) means to prevent Botswana opening hunting again. But those in opposition should stop and listen for a moment – this isn’t about opening “hunting” per se.  It’s about listening to the people who have lived with wildlife, asked for benefits, and been the most excluded – because they’re rural and “probably don’t understand” or “lack the training to be managers of their own Trusts.”

But don’t underestimate the rural voice – it could mean survival of wildlife resources.  And in all the previous “discussions” about conservation and wildlife, the absence of the community voice was the most deafening.   Communities are central to the discussion of conservation, land use and tackling the illegal wildlife trade… enraged “conservationists” are missing the point.  CITES, and its 183 member states agreed that rural communities need empowerment, with enabling policies to engage with benefits.  Repeat: they agreed. The establishment of the CBNRM programme in the 1990s demonstrated the need to maintain areas of key wildlife diversity whereby communities would be rewarded with benefits for tolerating an increasing and locally abundant elephant population.  Regrettably, the programme rapidly lost momentum under the Khama administration.

But the consistent use of the terminology – the “hunting ban” – introduced in 2014 is, in fact, incorrect – the suspension, which the Ministry claimed would be reviewed annually, gave the incumbent Minister discretionary powers to make decisions to benefit conservation (broadly) under the Wildlife Act – and the suspension conveniently got stuck,  allowing the Ministry to block hunting without having to go through lengthy (and politically damaging) consultative processes and to change land use of concessions from multi-purpose to single purpose, without having to go through further lengthy (and costly) processes and review the Land Use Plan.

The results of the Aerial Surveys of 2011 conducted by Dr Mike Chase and DWNP gave GoB the perfect opportunity to use wildlife declines as a reason to stop legal hunting. Chase, in fact, was explicit in his executive summary of the results of the aerial survey, saying that legal hunting was not the problem, but illegal hunting/the bushmeat trade was, and which continues to be the case.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism (MENT) telling impoverished communities in marginal areas of northern Botswana that they could generate more revenue once they converted from safari hunting to photographic tourism has been misleading and, in many cases, totally unachievable.

How times have changed:  it’s been a long and arduous four years for many, particularly communities whose income stream dried up overnight. Rural people lost jobs doing what they know best, with many resorting to illegal offtake to support their families, and with the CBNRM platform deserted.  Now, with an overwhelming vote in Parliament we look forward to positive change, the ability to gather opinions and engage in real solution-making for the People – and still be the shining star of Africa for its wildlife and diverse habitats.

Debbie Peake is a spokesperson for the Botswana Wildlife Management Association (BWMA – now defunct) and a facilitator for the Xhauxhwatudi Development Trust (Phuduhudu).

Also, a representative for the International Professional Hunters Association (IPHA) at CITES CoP’s and Animals Committee (AC), and a member of the Technical Team of the CITES Rural Communities Working Group.