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Protecting nature to foster local solutions to global challenges

Jul 1, 2020Featured, Mali Elephant Blog, Talking WILD

by Dr. Susan Canney

Director, Mali Elephant Project

We’ve just announced the exciting and important news that our team assisted the people of Mali to propose a substantial expansion of their protected areas for the desert elephants. In this same draft legislation we were also able to propose reinforcing and promote the local governance systems (led by communities) at the heart of the Mali Elephant Project’s (MEP) model.

In this post I explore how such an expansion and revision fits into an important global picture of the critical need for natural areas. This need has been made more evident by the COVID-19 pandemic that has raised awareness of how degraded ecosystems increase human vulnerability to catastrophic events.

This MEP natural resource management model is described in the video below, however of great interest is that two key aspects of local attitudes provided the foundation for our work there. The first is the local peoples’ desire for elephants to persist, for multiple reasons, but in particular an understanding that the loss of elephants indicates to the local people that their natural environment is impoverished and less able to support life. There is an inherent sense within local peoples that they are part of a community of beings, in which relationship is key. The second aspect is an understanding that human impact must occur within the physical limits of nature, and excessive human impact degrades and undermines nature’s life-sustaining processes.

Studies demonstrate that concern for the environment and wildlife is widely shared across the world, but the mechanisms that enable people to act together are missing. A major part of the problem is that the globalised economic system lacks the tools to adequately penalise the destruction of nature, in fact doing the opposite by actually incentivizing its destruction through conversion to human-built capital. The multiple values placed on wildlife and the environment by people are not acknowledged, and are therefore invisible to economic analysis. In addition, the notion of physical limits is at direct odds with an economic system that pursues endless growth fueled by the consumption of natural resources. Sustainable human well-being (rather than GDP growth) requires a worldview that recognizes that, in the words of economist Lord Nicholas Stern, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature (see here for a synthesis of these ideas).

Added to these two key attitudes was our operating basis that environmental governance systems must be inclusive, transparent and equitable if they were to be respected by all, and therefore to endure into the future.

The MEP model is relevant today because of the growing awareness that much larger parts of the planet will need to be protected – than are currently protected – to mitigate against widespread environmental change and ecological collapse. While the UN is currently proposing targets that protect 30% of the planet by 2030 (an increase from the current 17% terrestrial and 10% marine), a growing number of influential scientists and conservationists think protecting half of the planet in some form is key to preserving the natural systems on which life depends and, therefore, keeping it habitable. Indeed it is becoming apparent that the loss of biodiversity and intact nature is a more fundamental threat to humanity than climate change.

This proposed expansion of protected area coverage – occurring at the same time as the global population is due to swell to 9.7 billion by 2050 – will require a wide range of tools and approaches from strictly protected areas to multi-use landscapes. It will also require local engagement to develop adaptive governance solutions that make wildlife conservation, sustainable use, and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystem services useful to local people. As we have demonstrated in Mali, considering a wide range of benefits and aspects of well-being is an essential complement to the “business-as-usual” approach to protected area management that concentrates mostly on the revenue streams required for the long-term maintenance of protected areas.

Making space for wildlife is very challenging, and such models that integrate wider social values have the potential to help ease the financial burden on the already stretched budgets of those that traditionally fund conservation work such as governments, donor agencies, and civil society organisations. In Africa, for example, available funding for protected and conserved area management satisfies only 10 to 20% of management needs.

The impact of COVID-19 highlights a further challenge. Currently conservation work to protect some of the world’s most important ecosystems is in crisis following a collapse in ecotourism, and the over-dependence of conservation on the revenue from tourism. The economic consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown and travel ban is already causing a surge in poaching, illegal fishing, and deforestation in life-sustaining ecosystems.

Nature-based tourism, which contributed $30 billion to sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in 2018, has ground to a halt with a forecast loss of millions of jobs. For many sub-Saharan African nations, this means a near total decline in conservation funding. It flags the vulnerability of funding models that are over-reliant on tourism and, more broadly, the need to build a world that is more resilient to catastrophic events.

Models such as that developed by MEP demonstrate the opportunities to create green infrastructure to rebuild the resilience of depleted ecosystems, so nature can adapt strongly to environmental change. These models also show that protecting intact natural habitats and “rewilding” degraded areas can contribute to solving many of the social, economic and environmental problems of our time; while investing in nature-based jobs and initiatives takes on a particular relevance as countries seek to stimulate the post-COVID economy. Such models not only deliver a wide range of ecosystem services – including the protection of species and wildlife – but can also be wildlife-centred and address several challenges at once. The case of the Mali elephants demonstrates, for example, the links between environmental degradation and compromised livelihoods and how both environmental degradation and youth unemployment can be tackled by engaging local youth in restoring the productivity, diversity and resilience of degraded habitats. It has provided them with respected occupations that support local livelihoods and economy, improved well-being, and strengthened social cohesion. Another example is the New Zealand Government’s 2020 budget which delivers more than 1 billion dollars in regenerating the natural environment, creating jobs as part of a post-COVID-19 recovery plan. Furthermore, implementation will involve the government working with indigenous people, local government, NGOs, and landowners to identify the priority projects. 

Women of N’gaw N’gaw re-planting a local species of Vetiver that has many uses and is highly valued but has almost disappeared due to overharvesting.

The pandemic has heightened awareness that healthy, productive, diverse, and wildlife-rich ecosystems are the foundation of all life – human life included. The need to protect wild nature is a major public health issue. From a planetary perspective, destroyed and depleted wildlands, coupled with high densities of humans and livestock, render society vulnerable to environmental shocks such as extreme weather events and pandemics. Major negative consequences are, therefore, unsurprising. As the local communities of the Gourma know inherently, humans are one species among many that inhabit this planet; and that human well-being and economies are entirely dependent upon the intricate, interwoven relationships that comprise the natural world. Humanity urgently needs to rethink its relationship with nature. It is essential that we find equitable ways to protect what remains of wild nature, and restore a healthy, diverse and complex natural environment. This is not a luxury – it is an essential matter of human health, economy, and survival.

The Mali Elephant Project is a joint initiative of the WILD Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

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