CANADA-AFRICA: Protecting wildlife - and local people

Setting aside large swaths of land for wildlife and eco-tourism is well-intentioned on the part of African governments. National parks bring in much-needed funds from tourists and help to protect precious ecosystems. But the new money often fails to benefit local indigenous people who have been living off that land for generations - ironically, forcing them to degrade the areas set aside for protection.

Tanzania and Canada have worked to fund communities living in conservation areas. The two countries have become models for Ghana which has been experiencing friction between local groups that inhabit protected regions and the authorities that mostly control their resources.

A new project teams Canadian, Ghanaian and Tanzanian researchers to find ways for Ghana to make sure its nature reserves protect all fauna and flora - including the livelihoods of the human population.

The five-year project will allow for best practices to be gathered and used to help convince the Ghanaian government it needs to better support communities that are being left out of the tourism and development emanating from nature reserves.

The Canadian government recently awarded C$2 million (US$1.8 million) to the project, which aims to develop new insights on how protected areas can deliver benefits in a more equitable way.

Protected Areas and Poverty Reduction: A Canada-Africa Research and Learning Alliance will eventually employ 17 senior researchers, 11 graduate students and a post-doc, and is in the process of recruiting some of those researchers from the three countries so that it can ramp up by January 2010.

Poverty has become the unintended consequence of many protected areas around the world. The study of that confluence is now the subject of much research, according to Grant Murray, the project's Canadian co-director and a professor in the department of recreation and tourism management at Vancouver Island University on Canada's west coast.

"Protective areas are the place where these intersect," Murray said.

The other co-director, Kwasi Nsiah-Gyabaah, Rector of the Sunyani Polytechnic in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana, has seen much of that intersecting poverty and natural resource management in two of Ghana's protected lands. Mole National Park, in the north, and Bui National Park, in his institution's region and stretching into the north, have been on his radar for what he sees as government having dropped the ball.

Nsiah-Gyabaah said that because of the poverty and population pressures of those living on the lands, there had been over-farming as well as indiscriminate wildfires usually set by either farmers or hunters wanting to clear land for their activities.

"The government response has been very minimal," he told University World News. Road systems to these communities was inadequate to spur development or attract tourists. And the money that did come to the region went into government coffers. Nsiah-Gyabaah said the government had offered "a weak and inefficient management of resources".

For the Bui National Park, there is another element that makes things particularly difficult for those living on the land. Two years ago, work officially began on the $622 million Bui Dam, a project planned to harness hydroelectric energy from the Black Volta River.

The project is expected to resettle more than 2,500 people because of flooded lands and has already started moving people out. While the government has tried to assure landowners it will compensate them and has promised to build schools and other facilities, traditional groups have said they have been neglected in the process.

Nsiah-Gyabaah said the people affected were mostly illiterate and needed outside intervention. He hopes the project will help create awareness among local people of their rights and help to better lobby the Ghanaian government.

The African academic recently travelled to Canada to learn about some of the successes there. In the Pacific Rim National Park in Tofino on Vancouver Island, a magical meeting of land and sea, he spoke with an indigenous man, Eli Enns, of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations band.

"When I was in Tofino, I had quite a lengthy discussion and learned a lot about how they manage their systems. I saw how they protect their biodiversity," said Nsiah-Gyabaah.

Some of the research team plans to visit Tanzania in mid-August to also collect information as Tanzania has had some success in sharing resource revenue from conservation lands.

The Amani Nature Reserve in the country's Tanga region has been recognised for its grassroots initiatives to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The government considers the communities inside the territory as stakeholders in the reserve's productive capacity. They earn a fifth of the revenue from eco-tourism ventures.

Murray said a large part of the project was simply the exchange of knowledge. He hopes the practices they document can be applied anywhere.

The project is a partnership between Canada's International Development Research Centre and its Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council which chose the project as only one of four from more than 100 applications through a peer-review process.

The other three are looking at vulnerable coastal communities in the Caribbean, informal supports for at-risk youth in South Africa, China and Colombia, and the use of mental health patients in the design of better models, taking place in both Brazil and Canada.

For Murray, the Protected Areas and Poverty Reduction project will allow researchers to better understand all the benefits and costs that flow into communities inside a protected region.

"Eco-tourism gives off a fuzzy feel. But what does it do to actively deliver benefits to the local population?"