Africa can help save the natural world and the livelihoods of Africans

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What mysterious combination of hope and determination drives little sea turtles, newly hatched, to pull themselves with their tiny limbs down the beach, into the foamy waves, and out into the boundless ocean? The odds of survival are against them. And yet each year, these hatchlings plunge ahead, doing their part for the survival of their species, with such determination that great numbers of them succeed.

We Africans, and indeed humans worldwide, can take inspiration from those turtles, just as we can also take some credit for helping to make their astonishing journey possible. The turtle hatch is happening now, as it does every January to March, at places like iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa, a magnificent marine protected area, and South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. 

iSimangaliso is a jewel of biodiversity on our far northeastern African coastline. It is an outstanding example of balancing conservation with human enterprise, where land and nature are managed sustainably and cultural practices protected at the same time. With its pristine seas, beaches and forests, freshwater lakes and rivers, iSimangaliso shows the wisdom of safeguarding our natural world for the benefit of wild creatures, and for humans, both current and future generations.

At a time when the Earth’s environment is badly out of balance and the future of its wild places and creatures in great peril, South Africa has much to give and many examples to share. Across Africa, we are so blessed with natural splendours on a continent abounding in unique species and ecosystems. We can lead the world down a better path — if we can summon a fraction of the courage and persistence shown by our precious sea turtles.

Between March 14 and 29, delegates from more than 190 countries will gather in Geneva to begin negotiations on an action plan to halt the ongoing biodiversity crisis. Negotiations will culminate later this year at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) in Kunming, China.

Despite commitments made in 2010, biodiversity loss has continued. An ambitious framework is needed to stop the destruction and to allow ecosystems to recover. Scientists say the surest way to do this is to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030 — the so-called 30×30 global goal, which scientists say is essential to avoiding environmental calamity.

Yes, targets like these are familiar, and talk is cheap. Very few of the goals set by the biodiversity convention in 2010 — the Aichi Biodiversity Targets — have been fully achieved. But many countries in Africa, including South Africa, can take satisfaction in knowing that they have already met their Aichi target for their oceans by vastly increasing their protected areas, and are making steady progress toward shielding vast expanses of land as well. 

South Africa, home to iSimangaliso, and one of the world’s megadiverse countries, has been fortunate to have had strong environmental leaders over the past decade. Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, championed nature both at home and as chairwoman of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN). And it was with great peace of mind that back in 2019, I saw her take up Chair of AMCEN, reassured that the vitally important organisation’s work was in safe hands. I was similarly excited to see Senegal’s Minister HE Abdul Karim Sall take on the role this year, and I am excited to see the leadership he will undoubtedly bring to the role. 

But while Creecy demonstrated great leadership in her role as African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) chair, as she has that of minister, her commitment to South Africa fulfilling its destiny as a global conservation leader presently hangs in the balance. I have no doubt that this can and will change, and the benefits will be wondrous. But it will require that South Africa, along with other African nations, embrace and strive to support the global 30×30 goal and thus continue on the path to Infinity Biodiversity (in the sense of Infinity Fish). 

The 30×30 goal is a rights-based approach to conservation that has broadly shared ecological and economic benefits that address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change while improving the lives of all Africans. I have long admired South Africa for having one of the most sophisticated systems for integrating conservation into rural development plans, and I believe that the world can learn from these models. 

But there is no time for inching forward. Africa is one of the most biodiverse continents in the world, home to five of the world’s 20 megadiverse countries. But Africa could lose up to 30% of its animal and plant species by the end of the century — ecosystem collapse can and will happen here if we let it, and the consequences on the lives and livelihoods of Africans would be devastating.

Luckily, places like iSimangaliso are not unique. South Africa, like so many African nations, including my own, has shown how nature and commerce can coexist. Business and biodiversity need not be at odds. In fact, it offers us a way to achieve our governments’ dreams of a “big green economy”. We need only look to the Gumbi people, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, for evidence of this. When the South African government returned 20 000 hectares of ancestral land to them in 2005, they set aside three-quarters of it for nature. This protected reserve, held in common by the community and called Somkhanda, has become a living treasure. First, the Gumbi found jobs restoring the land. Then they found livelihoods, guarding Somkhanda against poachers and serving as game rangers and guides for the tourists, students and other travellers who come to share in its beauty. Gumbi children learn about the environment and culture. Gumbi sacred sites are now safe from destruction.

The Gumbi protected Somkhanda, and now Somkhanda protects them. 

This is how South Africa’s environmental leaders can help lead the way out of danger. They have already shown a capacity for boldness, innovation, and creative ambition. If they speak up, they alongside the 25 African nations currently on the High Ambition Coalition, we can help build support across the continent, guarantee the rights and knowledge of our Indigenous peoples, ensure that local communities are respected, drive increased funding for the Global South, and ensure a new Global Biodiversity Framework that is inclusive and effective at protecting people and nature. 

When learning about iSimangaliso, I discovered it is a Zulu word that means “miracle and wonder.” What has happened there, and in Somkhanda, and elsewhere in South Africa, can and should be repeated continent-wide. This dynamic model must take hold in communities, in countries, on continents, on an ever-larger scale, until the entire planet stops its march toward destruction. Africa holds the key to a world where people and nature live in harmony, and South Africa can unlock the door. Professor Rashid Sumaila 

About Professor Rashid Sumaila

Rashid Sumaila is a Professor and Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Interdisciplinary Ocean and Fisheries Economics at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. His research focuses on bioeconomics, marine ecosystem valuation and the analysis of global issues such as fisheries subsidies, marine protected areas, illegal fishing, climate change, marine plastic pollution and oil spills. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Bergen and a BSc in Quantity Surveying from Ahmadu Bello University.  

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