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Nature’s Power to Heal the Injustices of the Past

By Andrew Zaloumis, 2016 John P. McNulty Prize Laureate

We all dread the thought of another tragic wildlife incident, another Cecil the lion. Poaching of rhinos and other critical species continues to afflict important conservation areas throughout the world.  Yet, while national parks sometimes feel more like military bases, this is a dangerous path to travel on.All the patrol in the world, all the fences or walls protecting these areas, will not work if the local people don’t have a stake in its protection too.

Someone like Mary Barnes, a black entrepreneur who used to watch tour buses pass by her traditional food outlet on their way to established white-owned tourism nodes. She could never get them to stop.

Even in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a park mandated by Nelson Mandela to promote conservation and development, Mary’s experience is writ large. In spite of iSimangaliso’s success as an agent of economic growth, the lived reality for people around the park too often remains one of exclusion.

We have natural plenty amongst human misery. Despite the end of apartheid and the significant growth in tourism, over 80 percent of the Park’s 640,000 neighbors still live in abject poverty and only 15 percent is formally employed. Situated in what remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in South Africa, these communities have historically depended on single breadwinners, state welfare and more recently, the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Economic apartheid persists, with hardly any locally, black-owned businesses operating in the Park.

As CEO of the park, and having grown up in this area, I knew the park would always be at risk until the individuals around it could share in its prosperity. What role could iSimangaliso play in tackling these generations-old challenges?

The answer may come from a change of focus.

During apartheid, Mshwayisa, who would become a second father to me, lived high up on the dunes, accessible only by foot. He was the community leader of the 90-odd souls who lived on this spit of land. As we sat under his Mdoni tree he told me, “I live between the sea and the lake and the wind keeps my spirit alive.”

From him I came to have a different view of conservation — a view informed by 800 years of traditional practices. One in which people and nature were never at odds.

In South Africa, and many other countries, national parks make up more than 8 percent of the country. The future of conservation efforts depends on the communities around them, and the future of these communities, the preservation of these rich cultures, also depends on their ability to thrive, economically.

Yet, with the forces of poverty working against them, people’s experience of dispossession and discrimination locks them into limiting beliefs – just like Mary Barnes.

To counter this, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is investing in the human potential that surrounds it. Through the Rural Enterprise Accelerator Programme (REAP), local entrepreneurs are getting training, mentorship and seed capital to start their own businesses. In doing so, REAP is re-envisioning the scope and method of the Park’s conservation model.

REAP identifies individuals who are open to change. Its approach actively supports participants to shift from passivity to self-reliance. Over 180 entrepreneurs have gone through the program, and now operate  successful businesses from hair salons, to bed and breakfast lodges, to wildlife tours and experiences, to private schools. Change is happening on an individual and a societal level, with new norms and a new mindset that embraces entrepreneurial values, radical in a context of aid-dependency.

These dynamics can potentially free conservation areas from the burden of having to drive transformation through aid-dependent intervention. In ten years’ time, we envision an economic pull of the park that’s so strong, that government won’t have to succumb to the mining industry, and that there are enough local people who feel ownership over their businesses and confident in their success.

It was Nelson Mandela who opened the door to what has become our “rewilding” strategy. He was here when the first elephants came back, and he said, to be resilient in the face of change, this place of global significance must maintain its local relevance. If communities can’t thrive here, both the globe and the people will lose out.

We are now working with other South African National Parks to think about how they, too, can include the millions of people neighbouring them in their growth and transformation.

Conservation is more than about national parks – it intersects across ecology, social justice and human wellbeing. After decades of apartheid, forced displacement and neglect, REAP participants see themselves in command of their own destinies, a small part of which is healing the burdens of the past.

This healing is now a core element of iSimangaliso’s conservation model.

Today, having established her catering business, Mary Barnes steps out into the road.

She raises her hand.

The buses stop.

Andrew Zaloumis is the CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park and founder of the Rural Enterprise Accelerator Program. He is one of four 2016 John P. McNulty Prize Laureates, and a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Learn more about the McNulty Prize.