I’ve always dreamt of seeing lions, elephants and giraffes in their own habitats in the wild. And I thought that wildlife reserves were saving the environment while at the same time injecting money into local communities and providing jobs – they were win-win enterprises.
But I’ve met a woman in London a few months ago who told me it is not always the case and often the survival of endangered species is pitted against the rights of some of the world’s poorest people. Since more and more people visit wildlife parks, I thought I’d share here some of her concerns about the situation in her own country, Swaziland.
The woman, Thuli Brilliance Makama, is Swaziland's only public interest environmental lawyer. She won the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize in April for defending the rights of local communities and trying to give them a stake in protecting the environment. The $900,000 award, the world's largest prize for environmental activism, is shared between winners from six continental regions of the world. Thuli was in London briefly, on her way to collect her award in San Francisco.
Here is what is happening in Swaziland:
Swaziland is a small landlocked country in the middle of South Africa and Mozambique, plagued by food and water shortages, overwhelming health problems and acute poverty. Yet white rhinos, elephants, lions, zebras, hippos and mamba snakes all thrive in its diverse ecosystems, and the kingdom has become a popular international destination for big game hunters and wildlife tourists.
But, in the name of conservation, local people have increasingly been forced off of their traditional lands and persecuted for continuing the hunting and gathering practices necessary for their survival. “It is near the edges of protected areas that you find the poorest of the poor. There is so much animal life there, but so little for the people,” Thuli said. Near the lush parks, local populations eke out a meagre existence through a combination of foraging and food aid (more than 600,000 of the country's one million people depend of food aid).
With her local NGO, Yonge Nawe, she has documented the forced evictions, violence and killings of locals living in areas around conservation parks. She is calling on the Swazi government to bring the perpetrators to trial and offer compensation to local communities for lost land.
|Villagers next to a big game park. Hosea Jemba|
In Swaziland, important game protection laws are controlled by the monarch - not the government - and the king has given the administration of these laws to a private company, Big Game Parks, which operates three parks in the country and is owned by the Reilly family. In 1997, an amendment to the Game Act (not debated in Parliament) gave BGP rangers immunity from prosecution as long as they acted while "protecting game". Yonge Nawe claims that as many as 50 local people have been killed since then.
Ted Reilly, who turned his farm into the country's first wildlife sanctuary in the 1960s and whose conservation efforts are recognized internationally, insists that without his company, Swaziland's parks would not exist and says his rangers act within the law. In the early 1990s, there were barely any rhinos left. It's only because he fought back and became tough with poachers that wildlife flourished back, he told Associated Press.
But Thuli maintains that many of BGP rangers' targets are just ordinary people, struggling to survive on the fringes of the parks. "These are just hunters and gatherers who need this to survive. People are being killed for hunting a small impala.” She says she is not condoning poaching, but wants to see the poachers prosecuted instead.
She believes that Swazi's remaining wildlife will not survive unless local people are given a stake in preserving it and can share some of its benefits. “It can been done. Look at Kenya and Zimbabwe.”
She has recently won a landmark case to include environmental NGO representation in conservation decisions, and is now able to call on the Swazi government to repeal Section 23 of the Game Act, which gives free reins to park rangers.
I am hoping to go to Swaziland and look at the conservation vs. human rights issue from both sides.