Fred, what sort of work are you currently engaged in?

After 11 years living in Tanzania I moved back to the US early in 2011 and am now running a small NGO that I set up called Maliasili Initiatives (maliasili means natural resources in Swahili). In working to promote sustainable natural resource management in eastern Africa, Maliasili Initiatives expressly focuses on building the organizational capacity of talented local organizations working on CBNRM. In my experience this is one of the main gaps in how international organizations pursue conservation in East Africa.  So we carry out most our work through local partner organizations and work to strengthen their core capacity, in terms of financial and human resources and organizational strategy, monitoring, and planning. In this way I feel an outside organization is most able to add value to local efforts.

What was your engagement with SASUSG and do you feel that the group made a useful contribution?

My involvement with the Southern African SUSG dates back to 2004, when I was director of the Tanzania program of the Sand County Foundation. As an American working in Tanzania I was a bit of an outlier in SASUSG but they welcomed creative ideas and initiative by anyone willing to invest their time in the group’s activities.  In 2004-2005, one of our goals at Sand County was to help build, or rebuild, bridges between East and Southern African conservation and sustainable use communities. SASUSG was the key entry point to do that. 

In my career, SASUSG has been the most intellectually vibrant community of conservation and natural resource professionals that I ever had the pleasure of interacting with. I consider that the creativity and innovation that characterizes the southern African conservation record over the past 40 years is not sufficiently appreciated, although this record of achievement is now well documented. What other countries or regions have been able to sustain, recover and expand wildlife numbers the way Namibia has over the past 30 years? This is an extraordinary achievement due to a very iconoclastic approach to conservation.  As an outsider to the region, I have tried to combine some of the key aspects of this intellectual tradition with some of my own insights from Tanzania. One of my main contributions to SASUSG was encouraging more critical thought around the relationship between natural resource governance and political economy analysis- specifically to look at how political dynamics and structures shape natural resource governance outcomes. This interest was shared by some of my SASUSG colleagues and led to a collaborative research project and edited volume, Community Rights, Conservation and Contested Land: The Politics of Natural Resource Governance in Africa, Ed. F.Nelson. Earthscan, 2010. (see for an excellent detailed review of this book. Eds.)

How would you see the prospects for CBNRM and SU in East Africa?

CBNRM in Africa is all about reforming the colonial and post-colonial natural resource governance regimes which historically disenfranchised local communities by centralizing control over land and natural resources. We have to be clear about the scope of change that is still required- around 95% of forests in Africa are legally claimed by the state, and in most countries unregistered lands - which usually means communally used rangelands, forests, and wetlands - are also generally considered government property. So if we want to have functioning CBNRM - and certainly this is essential on both livelihoods and conservation grounds - we have to have reform of these extant governance regimes.

Such reform is fundamentally a political undertaking, as it involves the redistribution of rights over increasingly valuable wildlife, forests, fisheries, and land in general, shifting authority from central bureaucracies to local groups of people whose livelihoods are closely linked to those resources. So if CBNRM initiatives are not designed to take account of these realities and incorporate strategies that account for the political nature of reform, then they aren’t going to make much progress. This has been the recent history of many such initiatives and the reason why some observers have concluded that CBNRM has not made sufficient progress on the ground. In reality it hasn’t, but that is not because community-based management regimes have not performed, but because in most places communities are still not given the rights and responsibilities they need to become viable managers of natural resources.

Some practitioners may consider these political barriers to CBNRM as insurmountable, or at least too complex to get involved with, and indeed the challenge of reform is daunting. So I think it is important to emphasize and learn from the reforms that do happen. For example, the importance of Kenya’s recent (2010) constitutional reforms does not seem to be widely understood by the natural resource community, at least outside Kenya.  The new constitution creates a new category of land called ‘community lands’, which can be developed to provide the institutional common-property basis for CBNRM that has been lacking in Kenya and many other African countries. This is hugely important to sustainable natural resource management of forests, wildlife, and all land-based resources in Kenya and it is one of the most significant restructurings of the state to occur in eastern or southern Africa over the past decade.

How important is sustainable use as a conservation approach on the ground today?

To be honest I find the term ‘sustainable use’ in relation to conservation to be a bit anachronistic, not because ‘use’ and ‘conservation’ are not compatible, but because I find it hard to conceptualize the practice of conservation without one or another forms of sustainable use. In other words is there really any conservation in the world today without sustainable use? Would we have the large protected areas in eastern and southern Africa- where continental populations of species such as elephants and lions are increasingly concentrated- without the revenues those areas generate through tourism, including both safari hunting and photographic tourism? No, we would not, or at least they would not have the resources to be as well managed as they are. Conservation outcomes in Africa, either successful or unsuccessful, are for the most part functions of the economics and governance of use, and the incentives those market relations and institutions create amongst resource users.

How can global organisations like IUCN best contribute to improving the outlook for communities and for conservation on the ground?

IUCN is obviously a unique organization and its capacity for facilitating learning, sharing of information, and promoting best practices is very important and valued by local practitioners.  The groups that I have been involved with, SASUSG and TILCEPA/TGER within CEESP, are good examples of that generation and communication of knowledge and innovative ideas. And clearly in today’s world having organizations such as IUCN and other global groups that have the resources and access to influence global or regional policy processes is critical.  The challenge lies in linking local realities and interests to those global processes.

Photo: Fred Nelson. Credit: Fred Nelson.