If we continue to champion protected areas only for their economic benefits, we risk opening the gateway for extractive industries to displace people, destroy our natural heritage and hasten climate change harms. If we want protected areas to contribute to transformation we must have difficult conversations that lead to collective choices and meaningful participation by people.
In May 2021, the government received a R132-million grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to fund the absurdly named Catalysing Financing and Capacity for the Biodiversity Economy Around Protected Areas Project.
The government has stated it will use this money to demonstrate how people living in or around three specific protected areas can benefit from them because, as the government noted in its application for the grant, they are mostly negatively affected by them.
The grant application also stated that protected areas in South Africa are increasingly threatened by unsustainable and illegal practices such as the overexploitation of natural resources and poaching. It notes two reasons for this: “rural poverty”, which leads to an “absence of meaningful livelihood alternatives” and “non-conservation friendly activities, such as mining, agriculture, and livestock”.
According to the government, the overall aim of the project will be to “build biodiversity economy nodes across South Africa and scale these up, enhancing communities’ stake in wildlife conservation”.
They plan to do this through a mix of developing small-, micro- and medium-sized enterprises, with a particular focus on women-owned SMMEs and youth training and mentorship programmes. These enterprises will be encouraged in the tourism, forestry, agriculture, animal management and land rehabilitation sectors, all of which it is hoped will result in “improved livelihoods/earnings/job opportunities for local people”.
Protect resources for people
This project is part of a wider movement to decolonise protected areas in South Africa, a country with a long history of “fortress” conservation.
In the past, people were excluded or removed from protected areas in the interests of protecting fauna and flora. In the late 1980s the focus shifted from protecting resources from people to protecting resources for people.
Efforts have been made to reincorporate displaced people into protected areas so that they can sustainably exploit resources in them, and participate in income generating activities such as eco-tourism. The wider value of protected areas has been calculated in terms of the ecosystem services they provide such as the provision of clean water for the benefit of all people.
Although this is preferable to the old authoritarian model, critics argue that its greatest failure is it has turned nature into “natural capital”, thus incorporating it into a neoliberal capitalist system in which nature is expected to produce profit. As Kathleen McAfee wrote, the strategy is to “sell nature to save it”. But as Bram Buscher and Robert Fletcher wrote in The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene, there is a paradox here in that “capitalist mechanisms are promoted to address problems that are in large part caused by capitalist development itself”.
Evidence shows that these “capitalist mechanisms” increase the risk of the unsustainable exploitation of protected areas because, by championing the economic utility of protected areas, they fall more readily into capitalist patterns of extraction and consumption. In doing so, a gateway is created for the extractive industries and activities to enter debates on how land is to be used.
We see this playing out in South Africa, where the boundaries of the Mabola Protected Area have been shifted to accommodate a coal mine, a decision that is being contested in the courts by local environmental groups. This is happening, even though the Catalysing Financing and Capacity for the Biodiversity Economy Around Protected Areas Project lists mining as a major threat to protected areas.
We see the failure of this commodification of nature in the accelerating global problem of the downgrading, downsizing and degazettement of protected areas, which is resulting in previously protected areas being opened to extractive industries at a rate never previously experienced. And we see the failure of this commodification of nature in the significant escalation of violence in relation to protected areas — both in terms of the murder of activists trying to protect them from exploitation, increases in poaching, and in the militarisation of anti-poaching activities. All of which are taking place in South Africa.
We see its failure in the lack of genuine opportunities being provided for local people in the development of protected areas, whereby most eco-tourism facilities and similar money-making enterprises remain predominantly in the hands of private interests. This failure is exacerbated by the lack of genuine commitment to including people in planning in protected areas.
Towards inclusive and collective choices
So, what is the solution? How can protected areas be protected, while people who live in and around them thrive?
As a starting point, any conversations that take place about how best to manage protected areas must include people who live in and around them, and these conversations must be substantive, meaningful and ongoing. It is clear that for protected areas to be properly protected there needs to be widespread support for them from the state, private landowners and from local people.
All stakeholders must realise that conversations that take place in these forums may be contentions and difficult. For example, in many parts of South Africa, the state and private landowners cannot hope to garner the support of local people if outstanding issues of colonial and apartheid dispossession are not addressed. Therefore, issues of historical justice and decolonisation must inform all decision-making in protected areas. This may result in changes in land ownership or could result in the co-ownership or co-management of land.
As a backdrop to these debates, an understanding that protected areas exist for the common good must be prioritised, with protected areas being reclaimed as part of the global commons. There is clear evidence that when local people are given genuine agency over the land — the commons — in which they live, demands for the sustainable use of that land increase (living with, rather than destroying, nature). It is equally important that the wider importance of protected areas to climate change mitigation and adaptation are understood — that they are commons that are critically important to us all, not just those living in and near them.
Once these egalitarian and democratic processes are entrenched, the work of providing livelihoods for those living in and alongside protected areas can begin.
To begin with, local people should be asked what they want, how they understand “development”, and what they want to see happen to improve their lives. They should not have external ideas of what “development” is imposed on them. The ongoing crisis in Xolobeni on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast demonstrates how not everyone wants the kinds of “development” that mainstream economic thinking, and mainstream politicians, propose.
If collective choices are made to develop initiatives in areas such as eco-tourism, then such developments must be cooperatively owned, and must provide jobs and income for as many people as possible. Similarly, if decisions are made to sustainably harvest resources from within protected areas, then the work and benefits that flow must be equally distributed. Such initiatives, if properly implemented, promise the realisation of genuine socially embedded and sustainable community-based conservation initiatives.
It is, however, likely that new sources of income beyond local initiatives will be required to protect protected areas. In their book, Buscher and Fletcher draw attention to the need to create an autonomous revenue stream that will not depend solely on the ability of protected areas to raise income for local residents. They argue that this should be funded by global environmental NGOs, global green funds and a form of “Robin Hood tax” on multinational companies who are most responsible for the climate crisis.
They also argue for the introduction of a “conservation basic income”, which they describe as “a monetary payment to individual community members living in or around promoted areas that allows them to lead a (locally defined) decent life”. This grant, they argue, would enable people to live flourishing and sustainable lives in protected areas in which they will continue to sustainably gather resources.
While the commodification of nature is allowed to persist, it is highly unlikely that the R132-million grant awarded by the GEF will result in positive outcomes for protected areas and those living in them.