Into the Jungle – Conservation against Livelihoods

We were ready for our first appointment and since it was with the national park staff we didn’t have far to go.  As some people were still cleaning their teeth and abluting, the rest of us gathered in a big square.  This made it quite a tricky meeting as you never knew which way to face.  As well as the park staff, our big partners working in the region; Bioclimate and CARE international staff were also present so it was quite a crowd.  But formalities through, plans made, and outcomes highlighted, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the nearby village we passed through the night before – Kortor.

While the national park is on the far side of the Little Scarcies River, the camp we were staying in is on the Kortor side, indeed the land has been granted as a gift from Kortor’s chief.  There have been problems raised with this, as it means the park wardens do not have a proper presence in the park.  Their role is to try and conserve a large area of land and there are examples of incidences of occasional cultivation, firewood collection and even logging going on.  Perhaps bizarrely, there are several small villages in the park.  When the park was declared, some people did not agree to the compensation and relocation package, a rather nice way of saying they were being evicted.  Even thirty years later these villages still stubbornly live on.  Fortunately it looks like their footprint is fairly small; what is more damaging is the pressure at the borders from villagers heading in to raid resources, including bushmeat and trophy animals.  The problem is worse on the Kilimi side where there is no permanent park warden presence – at least in Outamba there are some people trying to moderate the impact and publicise the usefulness of the park.

It is a tough job and it contains the usual variance between conservation against livelihood that tasks communities, governments and international organisations worldwide.  We all agree in principle that the conservation of our biodiversity is essential, but when the poorest people live nearby, who are we in the west to limit their opportunities when we have heavily transformed our own environments for our own economic gain.

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The Centre of Kortor

To arbitrate in this debate, STEWARD tries to have an impact.  By showing the value of keeping forests and harvesting their fruits, medicines and game sustainably, it can maintain a balance of biodiversity and resource for the communities.  STEWARD has high respect in Tambakka Chiefdom and also in the other places it works.  Few development projects have made it to these remote parts, and STEWARD has been careful to build up the trust of the chiefs, elders and communities close to the park before suggesting changes in the way they operate.  Two key people in this were Momoh from Bioclimate and Martin from CARE.  With very different styles, they had become highly respected and liked members of the communities across the region; and if you were introduced by them to anyone, you were already given a lot of consideration.  They were invaluable to outsiders like me who were only on the ground for short times.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Lochinvar

So with the delays Ian was already thinking we were well behind schedule – but there was much worse to come.  The road to the west comes off at Monze very near to the  hotel.  One of those wide gravelly untarred roads that ploughs remorselessly through the countryside.  Like other vehicles, ours threw up a cloud of dust and chippings as we flew down long straight stretches, cutting through farms and splitting up villages.  Sporadically, we had to negotiate a single track concrete bridge, timing our speed right to avoid any traffic coming in the opposite direction.

After about half an hour, we had to look out for a rather obscure turning – barely signposted to Lochinvar- that was a narrow track passing through several more villages.  The last of these was substantial, the local chief’s seat, and had several concrete buildings including a store as well as the more ubiquitous clay brick and mud houses.  At the end of the village the road turned through a gate marking the border of Lochinvar Park, but there was no gatehouse or ranger at the entrance.  Instead we drove down a straight track through a much more forested landscape.  Here and there we dropped down to a ford where the swollen water was still flooding off the land, despite the wet seasons having drawn to a halt and the weather having turned hot and sunny for more than the past couple of weeks.

Eventually we caught a glimpse of the park centre.  A rather glorious title for what was a bunch of run down chalets, ranger houses and some offices.  We drove past the tourist accommodation where a small crowd of young travellers were staying; being Sunday they seemed to be taking the day easy and hanging their washing on a line that extended out to one of the larger ranger houses.  This house was occupied by a member of the Fisheries Department – an extension officer who reaches out to the villagers in the swamps.  A long meeting ensued with Ian finding out about this extension officer’s perceptions of the state of the fishery.  The meeting again took longer than expected and we were due down by a lagoon to pick up our boat to the village.  The convoy getting longer – the local fisheries guy and a park warden came in a third vehicle stationed at some nearby houses and offices, we headed from the national park compound north towards the river itself.