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Review of African Wildlife and Livelihoods: The Promise and Performance of Community Conservation


By Will Banham

African Wildlife and Livelihoods: The Promise and Performance of Community Conservation  eds David Hulme and Marshall Murphree.  James Currey / Heinemann, 2001.  336pp, ISBN 0-85255-414-1, £12.95 (pb).

Community conservation is the ‘new’ idea in African conservation, except that it is no longer new.  Having evolved gradually, from initial origins in the 1970’s to prominence in the 1990’s, community conservation as philosophy, policy and practice first challenged and now, some would argue, has overthrown the ‘old’ idea of fortress conservation, at least in selected developing countries.  Essentially the label community conservation reflects a spectrum of approaches that promote, to varying degrees, the role of local communities in natural resource planning and management and the need for conservation to deliver tangible benefits to these communities in return for greater support for conservation.  Fortress conservation, on the otherhand, portrays an earlier view of conservation as exclusively a state endeavour, geared towards excluding local people, from protected areas as well as responsibility, in order to preserve wildlife and ecosystems for the benefit of the national and global communities.  In this experiment on the future of conservation in developing countries, Africa has been the main testing ground.

Many potential readers may already be familiar with the set of working papers generated by the collaborative research programme on community conservation in Africa (between IDPM at the University of Manchester, UK; the African Wildlife Foundation, Kenya; CASS at the University of Zimbabwe; and the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, UK), which African Wildlife & Livelihoods brings together.  Nevertheless, having all of the papers, in their final form, in one volume, creates a useful resource for conservation practitioners, academics and students alike.  The impressive list of contributors emphasises the combination of both practical field experience and academic rigour that makes this work so valuable.

Referring to the notion of narratives and counter narratives, dominant discourses and the ideas that replace them without necessarily having proven their greater value, African Wildlife & Livelihoods offers a critical assessment of the now dominant counter narrative of community conservation.  This aim of assessing the achievements of community conservation initiatives in Africa is framed by asking what has been happening, what changes have occurred in conservation processes and institutions, what lessons can be learned and what are the implications for policy and practice, and finally what are the priority areas for future research and analysis.  The 19 chapters are divided into seven parts.  Part One – Setting the Scene – describes the evolution of the community conservation narrative and the spectrum of approaches encompassed by community conservation.  Part Two – Conservation Policies & Institutions – looks at specific and varied examples of reforms in public policy and institutions.  Part Three – Parks & People Revisited: Community Conservation as Protected Area Outreach – provides detailed case studies illustrating the dominant East African approach to community conservation.  Part Four – Devolving Management: Community Conservation as Community-Based Natural Resource Management – examines more devolutionary approaches through case studies from southern Africa.  Part Five – Economics, Incentives & Institutional Change – looks at the detailed economic impacts and incentives that result from community conservation approaches.  Part Six – Measuring and Monitoring Conservation – examines the ecological impacts of community conservation.  Finally, Part Seven – Conclusions – draws from the previous chapters to identify the implications for policy and practice.

The need for a debate on the potential and achievements of community conservation, before it becomes the new orthodoxy without ever having been rigorously tested, is unquestionable.  As stated in the opening chapter, community conservation “is not simply about technical choices or changes in laws or formal organizations” its significance should be seen in the fact that it is “part of wider processes of social change and about attempts to redistribute social and political power.”  Although one might argue that the work described here began five or even ten years too early, mostly carried out in the mid to late nineties, assessing an idea only just finding its feet, African Wildlife & Livelihoods will nevertheless prove to be a seminal publication in this field.  Not only does the book come at an opportune time, when an increasingly critical analysis of community conservation in Africa is indeed taking hold, but, through its own genesis (the processes of research, working papers and agenda setting), it has undoubtedly been instrumental in pushing this debate to the fore.

One minor criticism, the geographic coverage, as acknowledged in the text, is somewhat limited.  The case studies focus on East and southern Africa, covering only six countries within these regions, and almost entirely (apart from occasional references) exclude both Central and West Africa, which have also seen experiments in community conservation.  As both the evolution, current practice and impacts of community conservation are extremely country specific (a point made in Chapter 2), this leaves a lot of territory and experiences uncovered.

The main problem faced by any assessment of community conservation is to separate out the overall and constituent objectives of the approach itself and therefore identify what the indicators of success should be.  What is the balance between the conservation objectives, i.e. the preservation of viable populations of species or self-sustaining ecosystems for human benefit, and the community development objectives of improved livelihoods and empowerment?  Whose objectives take precedence, international or national conservation agencies’ or those of the local communities?  Whilst the rationale of community conservation argues that the two are interdependent, the balance can and does vary in both directions.  As the review of Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE community conservation programme in Chapter 16 concludes, despite the theory, villagers still see development as agriculture, roads and schools and not as the sustainable utilisation of wildlife resources.  Likewise, Chapter 17, which reviews the extent to which community conservation has met the goals of the conservation agenda, confirms that there is still little empirical evidence that proves that community conservation has led to more effective conservation.  Certainly, the community side of the equation, the degree to which communities can benefit from conservation, as opposed to the way in which communities can, reciprocally, contribute to conservation has received most attention, both in terms of implementation of community conservation as well as its evaluation.  One of the dangers of community conservation is that it may turn out, in some cases, to be a Trojan Horse for those that seek to emphasise short-term community benefits beyond the capacity of natural resource systems to sustainably deliver, and it is, in part, this fear that has led to a mini revival of fortress conservation ideas amongst some conservationists.  In any final assessment however, community conservation must be judged, at least partly, by its ability to deliver on conservation objectives, at whatever level, and as in most analyses of community conservation, which are still largely the terrain of social scientists such as Hulme and Murphree, this is where African Wildlife & Livelihoods unfortunately places the least emphasis.

In summarising, Hulme and Murphree’s opening chapter accepts that the available evidence points to community conservation having only very partially achieved its conservation and development goals.  Therefore, whilst their ultimate conclusion, that the counter narrative of community conservation’s achievement is “not that it has proved that community conservation ‘works’..” but that it has “created the space for a set of community conservation experiments that take many forms and are achieving very different results”, is not surprising, it is still somewhat disappointing given the original aims of the work.  Rather than the ‘answer’ we get the usual academic call for further research, but then what’s new?

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (2003), pp. 75-78]

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