Makro king in parks rescue plan

South African conservation experts are teaming up with some of the world’s richest business people in a bid to export a “rescue plan” for national parks to other African countries.

A private company was recently registered to execute the ambitious plan. Directors include Mavuso Msimang, CEO of South African National Parks (SANParks), and Anthony Hall-Martin, a former SANParks director.

Another director is Dutch businessman Paul van Vlissengen, a billionaire whose family fortune was founded on Makro retail outlets. He is a chief financier of the project.

A fellow retail king, chairperson of the Walmart empire in the United States, Sam Robson Walton, is investing in the project.

In 2001 Walton was listed by the Sunday Times as the world’s richest man, with a fortune worth more than $65,4-billion.

The company, called African Parks Management and Finance Company (Pty) Ltd, aims to provide financial and management assistance to governments to ensure the long-term sustainability of game reserves that in many respects are little more than “paper parks”.

“We are trying to set up projects based on business models. They must involve the risk-reward-return equation,” says Van Vlissengen.

His theory is that national reserves in sub-Saharan Africa have floundered in the post-colonial era not just due to a lack of finances and political will, but because they lack management know-how.

African Parks’s investment provides infrastructure like roads, professional management services like anti-poaching, the restocking of wildlife and measures to attract tourists. The return on the investment will be provided by commercialising ecotourism, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing industries.

“Governments and surrounding communities benefit from the projects. The fact that parks are professionally managed will also encourage aid organisations to channel poverty relief into areas surrounding the parks,” Van Vlissengen says.

African Parks has signed deals with the Malawian and Zambian governments in recent months and is investigating possibilities in Mozambique and Kenya.

The Malawian deal involves a 25-year management agreement for Majete, a government-owned protected nature reserve in the south of the country. African Parks’s teams have already started erecting infrastructure in the reserve.

In Zambia, negotiations for a 20-year management contract for two national parks in the west of the country — Sioma Ngwezi and Liuwa Plains — have been stalled by political infighting between the local tribal authority, the Barotse Royal Establishment, and the central government.

Instead a one-year holding lease for the Zambian parks has been concluded. The process of consultation with local chiefs will be concluded at the end of June, after which African Parks is confident the 20-year lease will come into operation, says Peter Fearnhead, a member of the company’s advisory board.

This deal will see African Parks invest about $4-million in the neglected reserves over the next five years.

“A lot of suspicions have been raised because we are a company for profit,” says Fearnhead, “but the integrity of our relationships lies not so much in the contracts we sign as in the individuals involved. None of them can afford to let this go wrong.”

Other investors interested in the project include Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and the US State Department. Van Vlissengen has been talking to the World Bank about replicating the model in other parts of Africa.

Critics point out that the commercialisation and privatisation of national parks has a controversial history.

“It can’t be sustained in the long term. The focus is too much on profit, rather than biodiversity and heritage. Look at what has happened in Zimbabwe — some 60% to 70% of wildlife on private concessions in Zimbabwe has been wiped out,” comments Michele Pickover, spokesperson for conservation watchdog Xwe.

Other points of criticism include making parks exclusive by hiking tariffs and fears that wildlife will be sold off or hunted in order to raise money for investors.

Fearnhead, who is head of commercial development at SANParks, ran into similar criticisms when SANParks decided to sell ecotourism concessions and outsource its non-core functions.

He responds that African Parks will not own the land, but merely provide a service. The SANParks commercialisation experience has provided multiple layers of accessibility to national parks, while raising millions of rands for the cash-strapped organisation.

Fearnhead is quick to ward off accusations of conflict of interest by pointing out that both he and Msimang have declared their involvement in African Parks to the SANParks board. He adds that African Parks will not take on any ventures in South Africa while they are employed by SANParks.

The relationship that gave rise to African Parks started two years ago, when Van Vlissengen put up $25-million to buy 16 derelict agricultural farms on the border of Mara-kele National Park, near Thabazimbi in Limpopo.

In the past two years he has rehabilitated the farms to wilderness, stocked them with game, dropped the fences to Marakele and negotiated an ecotourism contract. SANParks has a one-sided call option to buy his 22 000ha over the next 30 years.

Van Vlissengen says his experience at Marakele has convinced him that, if national parks in Africa are to thrive in the new millennium, they need to get away from the old-fashioned conception that the state must own the land and be the sole beneficiary of it.

“National parks must become virtual companies. They must outsource business, manage contracts and commercialise services,” he says. “This is the business model we have used to manage national museums in Holland.”

National parks must also work out ways to become drawcards for professionalism and business acumen.

“Young, ambitious managers tend to go to work for banks and corporations, not for parks. What we are trying to do is build up a private-public management model that will attract them.”

African Parks’s argument is that private-public partnerships will succeed where state-run conservation models have failed, largely because of red tape, and where NGOs have fumbled, largely because of a lack of independence and accountability.

“Donor countries in the US and Europe are weary of pouring money into wildlife areas without measurable results,” Van Vlissengen adds. “We are trying to set up acceptable funding mechanisms for them that will also help wildlife.”

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements. She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga. An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation. She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive. She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice. Read more from Fiona Macleod

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