To Conserve Africa's Biodiversity, Its Leaders Must Rethink Protected Areas
By Kendi Borona
The first Africa Protected Areas Congress, scheduled for July 18-23, must put community land rights at the centre of its agenda.
Climate change and fast-dwindling biodiversity are the most urgent threats facing our planet today. The sharp rise in environmental catastrophes has led the global community to urgently seek new interventions to halt biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation through instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the target to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030, the Paris Agreement, and the COP26 Glasgow climate pact.
Unsurprisingly, at the core of these commitments are proposals to expand protected areas across the world, particularly in Africa: the world’s natural capital and host to about one-fifth of all known species of mammals, birds, and plants. This July, Rwanda will host the first IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC), with a goal to create a unified African voice in conservation that will value African people and nature through effective protected areas.
Currently, terrestrial protected areas are estimated to cover more than 14 % of Africa’s land area, while marine protected areas cover 12.36%. Much of this land overlaps with areas claimed by Indigenous and local communities, which has led to widespread conflict and contestation for land and resources. In addition, wildlife populations freely roam in and out of designated conservation areas into community-held lands, leading to wildlife-human conflict.
While much has been said about the importance of Indigenous and local communities’ role in conservation interventions since Benefits Beyond Boundaries, the 2003 IUCN World Parks Congress held in Durban, a lot remains to be done to entrench a truly human rights-based approach in the quest for biodiversity conservation on the continent. And this cannot happen without giving up the traditional protected area approach, which continues to bring harm to local and Indigenous’ communities and to the natural resources that sustain them.
Reports of serious human rights violations around protected areas are rife. In a recently published report, the Oakland Institute found projects touted as “community-driven conservation” to be hostile to communities in reality, associated with numerous human rights violations including land dispossession, weakening of Indigenous governance systems, extra-judicial killings, fanning inter-community conflict, running security militias that criminalized community members, and privatization of the commons. Indeed, violence remains a permanent feature of conservation practices in Africa through heavy militarization of conservation areas, lack of resource sovereignty, and a continuance of neo-colonial conservation practices.