A conversation about conservation in Africa: My perspective

This interview was conducted by a  masters student in a research methods class at the University of British Columbia.  They were required to interview somebody on a topic of their interest. So, we had a conversation about conservation in  Kenya and Africa.


Interviewer – We are going to start off today just to discuss some of your research, to begin with. I know you have quite a few experiences over the years, from your master’s stuff and now with your PhD work. I have read some of your papers on the work that you have done on the rock art sites and I am particularly interested in some of the East African cases you have worked at. So if you would like, discuss some of your research.

Me:  So, on the East African scope,  I worked  with the Trust for African Rock Art(TARA) . Our work was around rock art sites but the more you work with communities, you realize that these sites exist in a landscape setting. So, they are either within forests or on mountain landscapes or in other kind of settings within the larger cultural landscape belonging to that community.  In that sense, you end up not just focusing on the rock art itself as the particular heritage that we were interested in, but  dealing with other things – environmental issues, cultural issues, social issues, economic issues, and dealing with those things within the context of, or through the entry point of rock art heritage.

At Kondo UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kondoa

Interviewer – Yes, definitely – where were these sites located?

Me:   There were sites in Kenya – mainly in northern Kenya, western Kenya, in central Tanzania, and eastern Uganda. We also worked in Malawi.


Interviewer – And how many sites were there in total? How many communities were you working with?

In Kenya we had 4  community projects with the Abasauba people in Mfangano Island, the Iteso in western Kenya, the Turkana in nothern Kenya, and with the Abagusii people in western Kenya. In Tanzania it was the Warangi, in Malawi it was the Chewa, and in Uganda it was the Iteso – who are split in between the Kenya and Uganda boarder. The Kenyan and Ugandan Iteso people are the same people . It is the same landscape historically, but  the people are dissected into two by the colonial boundary which positions them in two different countries.


 So, what were the specific goals that you guys were looking at in terms of the research on the rock art.

Me: The main goal was to, of course,  ensure conservation of this heritage, but we approached it through the communities. That is, if communities understand the importance of this heritage, if communities embrace this heritage, they will be its  best defenders , better than any fence or any kind of infrastructure that you put in place. That was our position.  That is TARA’s strategy with regard to community engagement.   And that always turned out to be the case where there is good community buy-in,  and understanding of the project. And as the projects progressed communities would report other sites  and people began taking a lot of interest in it.

Warangi people in Tanzania

Me continued: So, our approach for community engagement was based on a set of interrelated objectives .What we call community engagement  is not training but rather, creating spaces of communities to share and exchange knowledge among themselves, and other people to contribute to knowledge, knowledge production  in a community setting. Discussions revolve around these kinds of questions: What heritage to you have in this  landscape?  How is it useful to you as a community? What’s your understanding of it? How has it changed? How can we make things better? How can we improve our livelihoods using this heritage? And then, the second part of that was promotion of that heritage, once we know that this is what we have here, then we ask how do we promote it within the community and outside the community. The other aspect is infrastructure development around sites, and then there is improvement of community livelihoods. Ensuring that there is revenue or trying to generate revenue through these kinds of things for community projects or community interests.

Working on signage for placement at sites  in Tanzania

So, in this specific example you have talked about how the conservation goal is around the heritage sites, you have approached this through a community engagement process and a co-production of knowledge. In general, in Kenya, what do you feel, where do you feel the motivation is in conservation. What is the primary goal, generally in Kenya.

Me: I would say,  what we see portrayed is the strong linkage between conservation and tourism. That comes out very strongly – that’s what we see. That, it is important to conserve whatever it is – the natural heritage, or the wildlife or other cultural things because of tourism. So that tourist can come see these things. Historically that creation of conservation spaces in Kenya and I think in the larger African context was associated with the colonial experience. Parks were created so that settlers or tourists could come and enjoy this pristine landscape. That is the origin of these ‘wildernesses’ some of which have been created at the expense of the traditional owners/communities of these territories.The communities are blocked and told : you cannot access it, you cannot hunt, you cannot earn a livelihood. But then we have this very beautiful landscape within a larger degrading landscape when people cannot attain their livelihoods or earn a livelihood.


Me continued: And a lot of resentment  develops around conservation areas with communities that are been locked out of these protected areas.  The creation of this exclusive spaces,   I feel, removes communities, dismantles communities from their landscapes. Not just physical removal, but also the knowledge systems  that are associated with active use of a landscape. If you are not using land, then you are not generating knowledge. That knowledge system  destroyed  it is not regenerated by way of using the land. That is my understanding of the historical context of the creation of conservation spaces as we know them today. That is not to say that indigenous communities or African communities or Kenyan communities have not historically had conservation spaces or protected spaces within their own social and cultural or economic structures of protecting their landscapes. But we don’t hear about that.



Me Continued: The current discourse about conservation in Kenya is about let’s preserve wildlife – especially wildlife, because that is the big thing – so that tourist can come. And this time around they are not shooting them with their guns. They are shooting them with their cameras. In the 20’s and 30’s they were shooting them with their guns – trophy hunting, which is not allowed in Kenyan anymore, but practiced in other African countries. So, really, to me the landscape of conservation hasn’t changed much because the word tourist in Kenya is equivalent to the white person.  So, we are still creating these spaces so white people can come and enjoy them- just like in the 1920’s and 30’s.  But how many people, Kenyan people, can access these spaces? How many people can even access the hotel industry. There is quite a bit of racism in the hotel industry. I hear people complaining about it from time to time. The people who get better treatment are the white people. Africans get poor treatment, in hotels and other tourist related aspects like the guiding industry and all of that.


Source: Pintrest.com
Source: Pintrest.com

Me continued: And then people start asking why are Africans or not interested in conservation? They are not interested in conservation because it is a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons I can think of. Also, who owns the tourism industry? If we say it is the main economic driver, who owns the hotel industry? Is the hotel industry owned by Kenyans? I mean, I don’t think so – I don’t have the data or the figures to support the argument but I think, the Kenyan people are the bottom of the tourism industry. They are tour guides, they are porters carrying luggage for tourists, they are chefs, they are not hotel owners, they are not conservancy owners, they are not in positions of power. The tour guides and chefs and waiters and all that, they are necessary positions to support the industry, but my point is that they are not powerful positions. They do not shape policy, they do not change the infrastructure of the tourism industry. They just fall in the line. So are we training our people to own the tourism industry, if we say this is the most important economic driver of our economy?  Are we training them to own the tourism industry or to be employed by people in the tourism industry? And who is it that owns the hotels? I don’t know! Most of them I think are foreign owned. Apart from, maybe, the community conservancies models which would be 100% community owned but I don’t know what the figures there as well.


Well, it sounds like some of these new conservancies are in response to a lot of these challenges. The marginalization, not benefiting from any of the incentives of conservation and as you are saying the connection to the motivation behind conservation and not being acknowledged as their traditionally livelihood strategies as being something that has naturally conserved the environment for many years. I think it would be really interesting to talk more about that because it is related to your research project . Could we could shift to your research?

Me:  Let me say something before we shift…


Me:  I am very dissatisfied with that kind of notion “I am conserving this so the tourist can come and take pictures” or whatever, do whatever. There has to be more to conservation for Kenyan’s, African’s, than just having tourists come to take pictures of things, or enjoy things that you yourself cannot enjoy. I am sure there are many communities that work on their landscapes and have understanding of their landscapes and have been doing things on their landscapes with other intentions of, I don’t know, maybe accessing water or spiritual sites, or sites of sacred significance, or other reasons but that is not dominant discourse. I think that needs to be the dominate discourse. That we are conserving this because it is important to us. I’m not preserving my culture, dance or making of cultural objects just because I want to sell it in the tourism industry. There has got to be more, I would hope,  there have to be more reasons that our cultural, natural heritage is of value, or is important.


 I would be interested to think about specific instances where it is possible to value your system beyond its economic importance within this global economy that is now of the globalized world. I think that when you at an area like the Maasai Mara where that has become a very valuable economic landscape, and there has been a lot of pressures on that landscape, and is it possible for a community member to demonstrate other value? How do we compare these relative values then? In order to have the true value of the connection to the land, and the knowledge of the land, and benefits for livelihoods compete against someone coming up an offering 300,000KES for their title deed. How do those two frames of evaluating a landscape compete?

Yes, that is the main problem. I think that everything is up for sale. Even your own culture is up for sale to the highest bidder. That is where you have people who say for instance they are Maasai when in fact they are not Maasai, and I understand that completely because it is a kind of economic survival strategy. How do you do it? I don’t know, but I think there has to be models out there, and I think they are there, it is just that we don’t know about them, of people who are able to communicate and demonstrate that there is more value to this than just 300,000KES or whatever amount of money. I am sure there are cases like that but you don’t hear about them.


 I imagine a part of it would be to have further recognition and understanding for the local perspective of what they value, what collective knowledge system are created in the local context. If I am understanding what you are saying you are suggesting that is not translating between scales of interactions. So while on a community level they may have an understanding of the value system, those values are not communicated.

Exactly. If there are good value systems within communities, the different ways of viewing things is not recognized, it is not communicated effectively, and it is always someone coming into communities and telling them what they need to do. Never asking what they think about the landscape, what needs to be done about the landscape or what their thoughts about the landscapes are. There is  still a lot of paternalism in engagements in conservation and it is always portrayed that African’s do not know how to conserve. That, they have to be taught conservation. It is really a very colonial type of discipline and space to date. It is very rare that you hear Africans being celebrated for their conservation efforts. I mean who have you heard being celebrated? Apart let’s say Wangari Maathai.

Source: maathaiwangari.blogspot.ca

And the reason Wangari Maathai was successful was she demonstrated to communities that you are conserving for yourself. Not so that people can come take pictures of your forest. No! You are conserving this forest, you are protecting this forest so that you don’t have to walk for long distances to fetch water. You are protecting this forest so that you do not have to walk long distances to look for fire wood. You are protecting the indigenous knowledge systems through seed revitalization and indigenous crops so that you have food security. She demonstrated to communities that -this is for you.


Have you seen any practical or tangible effects of this type of empowerment within the forestry communities that you are working in most recently? Is there a sense that indigenous people or local people at that landscape are standing up and saying no, we are taking some sense of ownership here, we want to be involved in decision making process. Where is that at in terms of maybe the grassroots movement of engagement?

Me:  There is a lot of work being done at the community level. With or without the support of the government in some cases, sometimes in partnership with the government. But there are a lot of good people putting a lot of good work. A lot of effort. Conservation is really difficult work, really difficult work. And who bears the brunt of conservation? It falls onto the communities who do not even access some of this landscapes that we are trying to protect. So there are excellent community members doing a lot of work. Most of it voluntary work. To safeguard critical landscapes. I have met some people who work with the Green Belt  Movement, doing fantastic work, difficult work. Scaling up mountains with seedlings! First of all, collecting the seeds from the forest floor, propagating the seeds to get the seedlings, and then transporting the seedlings up the mountains where it is degraded. Planting them, ensuring that they survive, and restoring ecosystems. It is a lot of work! How much compensation can you pay such a person?  How much  payment is commensurate for the kind of benefits will accrue from these landscapes to millions of people who depend on them?


Community members of the Green Belt Movement preparing to carry  tree seedlings to the mountain for planting

So, why don’t we look for those kinds of stories and speak about them? I am tired of conservationists being portrayed as tourists or researchers or someone who is not from, I don’t want to use the word foreigners, but it is always portrayed that conservationists  are the ones who have saved whatever it is, elephants, lions. Conservationists are never  the local communities who have to bear the brunt of having their crops destroyed by elephants but conservationists are people who have the money, the influence, the exposure. Those are the conservationist or the saviors of African heritage. What about the people who put in  who put in the work everyday?  Put your hands in the ground, plant the tree or do something else, ensure that tree survives,  and to me you are an excellent conservationist. But that is not the way it is. People do a lot of work with conservation and in the end they do not get the recognition that they deserve.

This is a conservationist.

The other thing about conservation in the African context is that the continent is portrayed in terms of conservation attractions and tourism is portrayed as being emptied of human presence. That the only human beings who will be featured in conservation discourses in the massai jumping up and down for tourists. Showcasing their skill or other communities who have preserved their culture – but that is a very small segment of African who are engaged in conservation.  And then you hear case of say Cecil the lion, who was killed in Zimbabwe. It is huge uproar internationally, and Africans are wondering how a lion came to be known as CECIL.  Is it named  after Cecil Rhodes the imperial magnate who has done untold damage and destruction to African people, the effects of which are still felt today? If you do not believe conservation is a colonized discipline look no further than the names of these animals. You might also want to ask who is it who gives them these names.

Cecil’s goal was to colonize Africa from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. He achieved his goal.


Me continued: So back to Cecil the lion. You have this discussion globally about how a lion has been killed, and the world(read white people) is outraged. The lion is even displayed on the empire state building in New York. I have never heard of anyone complaining that a guide or other person has been killed by an elephant. I have never heard of anyone saying the lion has eaten someone’s livestock or eaten somebody for that matter! So people don’t matter ? African people don’t seem to matter in the larger conservation discourse globally. Yet, they are the ones that bear the brunt of conservation. They do all the  the back-breaking work of ensuring that all of these spaces exist so that other people can enjoy them.

Cecil the lion on the empire state building

Me continued: There is then also the aspect of who makes decision about conservation. I just saw Judy Wakhungu(Current cabinet secretary for environment) post a few weeks ago  that they were trying to get the African elephant into appendix one of CITES,  hence granting it higher protection. But lo and behold, this move was strongly opposed by the EU. More on  that here. So, who is making decisions about conservation? Is it the people have the heritage or people who enjoy the heritage? There are huge issues around poaching and stuff, and I don’t know,  I just don’t understand. It just seems like it still very much related to the asymmetrical power relations that exist in the world. I don’t know how I got into that? What was your question?

 I think it is a strong point because to me it is a real disconnect between the scales of understanding of what is going on at the grassroots level to the county government, to the national government of Kenya to various NGO’s who are working on all of those levels to then, this international community who is  making these global decisions as you say about how important an elephant is without strongly determining if the context of where that elephant exists is going to determine where is should sit in conservation priority. Instead, they are asking the people who are perceived to benefit from it who are not the custodians of that land that the elephant lives on. From my personal interests I am really interested to know where research is going in this area specifically around the recognition around indigenous knowledge in these systems and I think a lot of your work touches on those aspects. How can an outside researcher can begin to engage in that process of genuinely acknowledging, representing and discussing local and indigenous knowledge in the context of emerging conservancies which I believe are a response to the marginalization, lack of benefit sharing, lack of ownership. How can the research community perhaps offer some validation of these systems? Offers some kind of platform to look at and recognize that these systems are participating in conservation. What do you see as the biggest limitations of that kind of research work that is going on in Kenya? Is it limitations of weather it is communicated well, is the research asking the right questions, working with the right people? Is it the fact that it is mainly outside researchers, that it is not coming from within the Kenyan community itself? I wonder whether the biggest issues today in research being able to validate some of these knowledge systems in the context of conservation.

Me: Well, I don’t think there is much research on that, on the conservancy model. I haven’t looked keenly, but I don’t think there is a lot of research on that, the community conservation is pretty new and if at all there is research conducted around that area it might not be necessarily around indigenous knowledge systems. It might be around other issues of the conservancy model because there are other issues. I don’t know if there are people working on indigenous knowledge systems.


Do you think that is part of the problem?

There are too few people doing this kind of work. Or who are interested in this kind of work. Indigenous knowledge is still pretty, very severely marginalized across the continent, and everywhere, globally. So, people who are working on indigenous knowledge systems are struggling to push this knowledge system out there. And then there is a lot of push back in terms of what is considered valid scientific knowledge. I don’t know who has to validate and who doesn’t have to validate. The point is, people have lived in landscapes for  millenia- forever-as far back as we can go.  You cannot tell me that if you are living in the landscape for 1000s and 1000s of years you have not developed a knowledge system on how to cope with this landscape, how to use this landscape. If you are an agricultural community you have to know science. You have to be the best scientist. You have to know the soil, you have to know the weather patterns, you have to know the crops, you have to know how to select seeds. To me that is science. If you are a pastoralist, you have to do the same. If you are a hunter and gatherer you have to have a knowledge system with which you engage with the land. If you are engaged in fishing you have to have an intricate knowledge of the waterscape in which you operate. We have to stop bastardazing people.  The whole question about validation speaks also about the marginalization of indigenous knowledge. First of all, we have to prove that we have knowledge. After we prove we have knowledge then that knowledge has to be validated. What gives them the right, or the moral authority to validate, when in most instances the so called “validators” are the ones that have contributed to the marginalization and the weakening of the indigenous knowledge systems?

Iteso people in western Kenya

But I hope there are good cooperation out there between people who work in these kinds of issues. If there are people of good will working with communities – I mean, it is just about respect. Creating an atmosphere where people can really make contributions and try and achieve something, instead of contestations of which knowledge is better, or who is better. Who is teaching who? I think anyone can learn something from anyone. No one  has monopoly on knowledge. So if that is the kind of attitude we have I think we can move further than saying this is valid, and this is invalid. Rather than having to prove you are right. That kind of contestation does not get us very far. Collaboration and seeking solutions and creating mutual respect and interdependencies I think, can move people forward.

Iteso children in western Kenya

Changing how the conversation is happening in this context?

Me: Yes!

 I think we can find evidence of this happening on a local scale, I struggle to see how that is going to move up the scale when you have the complexity of international donor funding, and national government agendas, all of the politics of these systems. I think that will be the next challenge.

Me: I think it is really worthwhile to consolidate the strong base with communities. I mean things happen because people make them happen. They just don’t happen if we sit back and say the international donors and the government and etc are so powerful and anti-change and anti-that. If we take that position then nothing happens. But, if people work towards something  then its good!  What is the goal of the international donors? What do they want to achieve? What does the government want to achieve? If it is tourism that is the driver of your economy as we say, then you want spaces that are dynamic that are well protected, in which people are supportive, not where there is contestation. When people are benefiting! So how do you achieve that by locking people out of knowledge production first of all, and out of participating in conservation spaces? Legislations are changing. Why are legislations changing? Because people have been pushing for it for years. The IUCN now recognizes ICCAs, Indigenous Community Conservation Areas, which are older than national parks and national reserves and all of these other conservation spaces. So that didn’t just happen. People have been pushing,  there are people working out there to make right the wrongs of conservation. Because conservation has also been unjust to communities. People have to keep doing what is right. People have to keep fighting injustice because all of this is tied to injustice.

 I think that is a great place to sum up our interview here.

Me: Thank you.



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