“Saving Africa from Africans”: A conversation about conservation in Africa 2.0

This post is an interview  I gave to a PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia. This interview was a requirement  for their research methods class. The aim of this exercise was to equip the student with skills on how to conduct one on one interviews. The interview was transcribed for by the student and I will present it in that form. Here is our conversation.

Interviewer(GD):  Can you tell me about your current position?

GKB(me): I am now a PhD student here at the Faculty of Forestry, and I am at the stage of starting to write my dissertation. My research focus is on indigenous knowledge systems and their application in forest governance. I try to understand how people relate to their forests or to landscapes through indigenous knowledge systems in the Kenyan context. But my interest is more in the African scope.

Mugumo tree in Kakamega Forest, western Kenya

GD: Have you been involved with any environmental protection initiatives in Africa?

GKB:  Yes. Prior to starting my PhD  in 2014,  I worked  on several community conservation or community-oriented conservation projects, actively in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi. These projects were mainly around heritage sites, but heritage sites or cultural sites exist in landscapes. And, so, communities view their sites and landscapes in the sense of  a general landscape orientation and not –  this is a forest, this is a mountain, this is an agricultural land, this is an archaeological site- but all in one encompassing landscape. That was what I was involved in for 8 years before beginning my PhD.


Ankole cattle in Uganda

 GD: So, from an African perspective, is land a seamless transition without divisions?

GKB: Yeah, I would argue that in the traditional set-up, before the encounter with colonialism, most African societies had different conceptions of land or landscapes. It might not be the same, but amongst the group of people I do my research with, land was just land. There was no subdivision which has been created by colonialism [and furthered by post-independence African governments], where you would say this is a protected area, forest reserve or national park that is out of bounds to everybody including the community on whose traditional territory it sits because it is preserved for conservation. Then you have agricultural land or land for pastoralism or other kinds of land uses. So, that kind of subdivision was not necessarily there from what I have begun to understand, so far.

Sunset in Pokotland, northern Kenya

 GD: What do you see as the most unique challenges in the recognition and incorporation of local values in environmental protection in Africa, today?

GKB: There are many problems, I do not know which is the most important one [respondent laughs], but I would say the most important one for me, is the dismantling of communities from their landscapes. Physical dismantling or psychological dismantling of their understanding of their landscapes, and also treating communities, majority who live in rural areas as stupid people who do not know anything. They need to be taught conservation, they need to be taught development, they need to be taught this, they need to be taught that. And, that diminishes their power. People have different kinds of synergies with the environment in which they live and we do not seem to harness that or recognise that properly. It might be in legislation, and legislation now seems to be changing towards that orientation, but in actual practice it is not as valorized as say conservation of national parks or other areas for tourism or protected areas. Communities are still viewed as trespassers or poachers, or I do not know [respondent shrugs] shifting cultivators or whatever other unpalatable adjectives that you might come up with [respondent laughs]. I think to me, that is the failure of, failure to harness the potential of the people, the power of the masses in landscape governance. And, that stems from the colonial experience.

Turkana people, Kenya

 GD: You mentioned the dismantling of communities, physical and psychological. Can you tell me more about that?

So, the physical is the relocation of people, physical movement of people either to create a national park or create a forest reserve or some other land use. Dislocating them and moving them to another place or dislocating them from one place so that you can have settler agriculture. This creates dis-organisation within the landscape.  I see the psychological dismantling as the destruction of knowledge systems, destruction of connections to the land, destruction of synergies with the land. This is tied to  physical dislocation because knowledge is produced as a result of interaction with the environment. It just does not happen. It is not an abstract thing. It is based on practical use of resources and responding to challenges in nature. So, if you have been moved, from your traditional territory, dislocated to another place, it means you have to learn a whole new knowledge system and also, even if you remain within your territory and your knowledge systems are completed devalued, then you to relearn, a kind of formatting of our people’s heads [respondent laughs] and telling them that anything that they knew before is bad, is not good, is primitive, is destructive, and environmentally destructive and you have to learn afresh. So, how do you learn that? And, how effective is that when it comes to the actual practice of resource use or environmental governance or any other aspect for that matter?

Gabbra women, northern Kenya

GD:  You mentioned four countries you worked in, are there any peculiar values you see in those regions, or what you talk about is general in character?

GKB: Okay, I think they are all facing devaluation of knowledge systems,  apart from the remote rural communities who do not have that push of government or the push of international NGOs to modernise or change them. So, there are similarities and differences. The similarities can bee seen when communities are made to feel that what they know is not good enough and this is buttressed by modern education systems. So, when they see a person coming from outside the community, especially an educated person, they think that they should not speak or say what they think because this person is there to teach them whatever it is that they are discussing. But, it depends on how you engage with the communities. Out approach (when I was working in those countries) was not to tell those communities that we are not here to teach you or to train you. “Teaching” and “training” is the most common language in use with respect to communities. Our approach was to say we are engaging. So, everyone is here to make a contribution and we are here to learn from each other. Once you create that kind of atmosphere, people begin to really open up and share ideas and lots of interesting stuff [respondent laughs]. There is a huge base of knowledge that is held within these communities and by different kinds of people and presented in different ways. This is not to say we were prefect or did not make mistakes. We made lots and lots of mistakes. But, like anything else in life, you have keep improving…correcting ourselves. We have to keep learning. Learning with humility.


GD:  Can you tell me one or two examples of these local values?

GKB: So, for the Abasuba people in Western Kenya, they understand their environment through the history of their migration routes and peace and conflict resolution, and give a story of how they came from Uganda and settled on  Mfangano Island. So, this is an island on the Kenyan side of the Lake Namlolwe  otherwise known as “Lake Victoria”. It was so named by John Hanning Speke after in honour of his queen after he  allegedly”discovered” it. Yes, one of Africa’s magnificent waterscapes is named after a woman who presided over their death and destruction. I am digressing. Let us come back to the Abasuba. Their understanding of land, the lake, is tied to their migration, their quest for peace, and conflict resolution.  Mfangano remains a very peaceful island as compared to many other places where there is conflict over natural resources and other things. Read more about the Abasuba people in a book I co-authored with a colleague here.

Abasuba Community Peace Museum: picture courtesy of the Trust for African Rock Art

GKB continued: And then, there is the Chewa people in Malawi. Interestingly, they still practice what you would call very traditional systems of using rock art sites which are paintings and engravings on stones and caves, and these are sites set in mountainous forest landscapes. They are still used  for initiation rituals to date. You would think that some of these practices would have died off as a result of the colonial missionary assault but they have not. They also have another practice known as the ‘gule wamkulu’ which is a secret society in which they dress in masks. There are teachings to be impacted through different kinds of masks and different kinds of costumes. They parade round the community tackling different kinds of issues including health, conservation, landscape use, and relationships between people and so on.

GDHow do they do this?

GKB: They have their own way, they have  song, and a dance. And, it is recognized by  UNESCO as a form of intangible cultural heritage. Read more about this here and watch the video.

GD: So, gule wamkulu has UNESCO endorsement?

GKB: Oh yeah, it is a unique form of cultural heritage among the Chewa people. So, there are these kind of practices, the fact that they are alive, to me, is indicative of a very strong form of resistance from the communities saying that we think it is important and we want to continue practising it.

A gule wa mukulu dancer in Malawi

GD: What are the threats to environmental values in Africa?

GKB: For me, where there is no honest community engagement, then there is a threat to these values.

GD: Why do  you see this as a threat?

GKB: To me, threats must be seen as injustice, because if people are denied their livelihood, if I cannot feed my children or take my children to school and you have locked up the forest which is only accessed by tourists, and I cannot even fetch firewood from it, people become antagonistic to conservation spaces when there is no proper community engagement. There has to be equitable sharing of benefits from conservation spaces with communities living around these spaces because all our sites are surrounded by people. I do not know of any conservation spaces in Africa that are not surrounded by people. As difficult as it is, I think that is where we have to find a way of unlocking that deadlock and it has to vary from case to case with the communities.

Chewa people in Malawi

GD: Who are those creating these threats to environmental values?

GKB:  I think there are different kinds of people. Usually the communities are blamed for all the environmental ills. They are poachers, deforesters or whatever. But environmental destruction, if I can give the Kenyan case, if we look at the 1990s,  was more of a government-driven initiative. A failure of government by opening up forests and dishing out land to people. This was one of the things Wangari Maathai was fighting for. Government’s failure to enhance or oversee or manage, because you know, these are public spaces, and so they should be accessible to the public, first and foremost. But if the government is the one that is grabbing the land or allocating the land  to individuals or to communities as well in order to mobilise votes, then who is to blame, who is to bear more responsibility? I think all sides bear responsibility. But, if you are a government and you have been given a responsibility to oversee, then I think you should take more responsibility.

Shores of Lake Malawi

GDApart from governments, who else?

GKB: Conservation in Africa remains a very colonial discipline or colonial undertaking. Who makes conservation decisions on Africa’s landscape? Not even African governments. It is tightly controlled by international organisations. It is tightly controlled by researchers. It is tightly controlled by the philanthropists and philanthrocapitalists.

GDThat is an interesting term, philathro-capitalists. Can you explain, please?

GKB: [laughing] People who are seen to be benevolent but really they are just furthering the capitalist agenda of more accumulation of wealth. So, I am dissatisfied with the place of Africans in conservation generally. I feel like the people who drive the agenda of conservation and environmental protection are organisations who have the say, governments seem to be following what conservation organisations say, and not so much what the communities say although at times the communities can also get support from international organisations against destructive environmental governmental policies.

Kalacha, northern Kenya

GD:  So, is there a dichotomy between international organisations that are pro or against?

GKB: I think it is not that. The point is whichever way you look at it, the international organisations still wield a lot of power even if they are supporting communities the government is going to listen to them more because they wield a lot of power. If they are supporting government against communities, the government would listen to them because they still wield a lot of power. So, it speaks to the asymmetrical nature and matrix of power that exists in our world today.

Ilingwesi community lodge, Laikipia, Kenya

GD: What solutions do you propose or suggest to solve this problem?

GKB: I think, the conservation community, as I said at the beginning, seems to be seeing the light if you could say that, because, if I may use Kenya again as an example, in terms of forest governance there is a new legislation passed in 2005, which now recognizes the role of communities in forest governance because these protected spaces are large protected spaces, hundreds and thousands of hectares surrounded by people and communities. So, historically, you would have people with guns, forest law enforcement officers, how many of those people do you need to man a 100,000-hectare property for 24 hours? People would still infiltrate into these spaces. So, the discourse is changing. Now, you need to work with people who are living outside and around these spaces in creating management regimes where everyone feels like they are benefiting from these landscapes.  I think that is a good thing.

Kalacha, northern Kenya

GD:  In which ways do you think this would help?

GKB: I think it just needs more enforcement and support. And, the other thing in conservation agendas is the recognition of indigenous communities’ conservation areas (ICCAs). These are places managed purely by communities and these are the oldest forms of conservation spaces in the world. Again, it pints to that aspect of communities being taught conservation. These people have been doing conservation thousands of years. So, the  recognition of ICCAs is an endorsement that communities do not need to be formatted, to have their brains formatted so they can be taught conservation. Also, more respectful collaboration between different agencies or players in the conservation industry be it government, non-governmental organisations, or researchers, as I said, those with power and those with less power. So it is more of how do you make that equitable or how do you create spaces where there is mutual exchange and benefit such that it is not only one group benefiting or certain people lording over the other group of people

Ilingwesi, Laikipia, Kenya

GD:  Do you anticipate any challenges in implementation?

GKB: Of course there would be implementation problems, but if people are keen on solving a problem… problems get resolved when people decide to engage and work together and cede power and have common goals and well-thought agendas that are inclusive of everybody. Not that there would not be challenges, but you will find a way of working around them.

Gabbra peoples’ (northern Kenya) architecture

GD: What special considerations would you propose?

GBK007: I would suggest a high degree of inclusivity. Again, as I said, a lot of communities living around these conservation spaces are highly marginalised especially the big conservation landscapes we have on the African continent are still seen as a problem and not an asset and that is because of poor engagement and powerful people  destituting communities.

GD: Thank you very much for your time.

GKB: My pleasure. I hope I was able to answer your questions.

GD: Yes, thank you. I have learnt a lot.

Samburu women, Kenya

Note: The title of this blog post”Saving Africa from Africans” has been borrowed from a a paper by  Robert H. Nelson  on the same subject. You can read the paper here.

See another conversation about conservation in Africa here.


4 thoughts on ““Saving Africa from Africans”: A conversation about conservation in Africa 2.0

  1. Great article. Would love to read your desertion. I am a strong believer of the value we have in indigenous knowledge and systems. For my masters, I had studied the role of Indigenous institutions in promoting sustainable peace: A case study of Njuri Ncheke Council elders of Ameru. Sustainable peace include being at peace with the environment.


  2. Thank you for this wonderful peace. Of interest was your description of the unequal perceptions of power particularly when engaging with communities and “enlightening” them on conservation. Trainings and workshops are a real thing in most conservation efforts. but as you mention, its all about perception – who is giving who what. With resource governance, your insights of taking the community’s as equals does go a long way to ensuring sustainability of resource use. Thanks for this


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