A blog post by Peter Bridgewater, Associate Editor for People & Nature.

Read the full paper discussed here in our Open Access journal.

Read the Plain Language Summary for this paper at Relational Thinking.

Robin Bourgeois, and several colleagues, have just published a fascinating article on Transfrontier Conservation Areas, using the lens of environmental justice. This is indeed a timely publication, foregrounded by the recent (eventual) acceptance of a Global Biodiversity Framework by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity that proposes 30% of the earths land and sea area be “protected” by 2030. While many government and non-government voices (largely from the comfort of the global north) were clamouring for this 30*30 idea, there were opposing voices, largely from Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities from whose lands this 30% would largely need to be taken. The global north did also, at the last minute, offer to mobilise $30billion by 2030,    although this was quickly deemed insufficient by many in the global south. An eager COP15 president Huang Runqiu appeared to gavel through the deal despite objections from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other African states. Therefore, this is foreground to paper on Transfrontier Conservation Areas, since such areas, especially in Africa, will be crucial to reach this 30*30 target.

Bourgeois et al. remind us at the start that conservation is in many ways still a colonial act, an expression of NIMBYism, or of assertion of correct ‘values’ over others. They note the recent history of conservation in southern Africa navigates around the concepts of decolonisation as many National Parks were designated during the colonial or apartheid eras, in areas typically unfit for any other forms of modern land-use, but often inhabited by Indigenous communities. As I write this in Australia that sentiment has resonance with the situation here, although it is changing rapidly.

In Africa, Australia, and the Americas, creation of protected areas has been imposed on local communities, who are in many instances forcibly evicted from their land and alienated from meaningful access to their culturally important sites and resources. Although National Parks are often spoken about as “America’s best idea” the reality is that they arose from highly colonial – even racially motivated – actions. Amitav Ghosh in his excellent book  “The Nutmeg’s Curse” builds on this, even showing the links to the entwined global change problems around biodiversity and climate that colonial actions & thought have wrought.

In a positive framing, Bourgeois et al. recall how in the 1980’s southern Africa started to lead the way in a change from the colonially inspired “Fortress Conservation” to “Community-Based Natural Resource Management”, where, at the periphery of Protected Areas, the management of natural resources was devolved to local communities, allowing for conservation but also managing human-wildlife conflicts. Broader recognition of the interdependencies between protected and unprotected areas followed, leading to increased participation from stakeholders. These community-based programmes attempted to address environmental justice through its distribution (e.g., benefits) and procedure (e.g., rights), as well as calling for more holistic visions and better recognition of the multiplicity of worldviews expressed by all actors in the conservation playbook.

Building on these ideas, the authors show how Transfrontier Conservation Areas emerged across the southern African states – all of which, of course, have colonial boundaries that make little ecological sense. And, despite the foregoing, the authors observe that “marginalisation of Indigenous people currently riddles Transfrontier Conservation Areas, leading to poverty, poor development, social injustice, and inequity…. Leading to environmental justice being violated, intentionally or not, in a context of persistent neo-colonial behaviour of some of the dominant actors of Transfrontier Conservation Areas.” 

They develop these themes through four case studies: two in Zimbabwe, one in Botswana and one in Mozambique. Using workshop approaches the authors sought to enable local stakeholders to co-design activities focusing on promoting their livelihoods. Their results nicely illustrate the positive and negative aspects of Transfrontier Conservation Areas. A key conclusion was that there is an urgent need to repair and improve environmental justice and deconstruct persistent neo-colonial attitudes in Transfrontier Conservation Areas. They nicely argue that “when facing a colonised past, a decolonisation of the present is required to prevent further colonisation of the future.” Transfrontier Conservation Areas provide a unique opportunity to produce healthy (cultural) landscapes with a sustainable coexistence between People and Nature but seriously need a decolonial process to address the environmental injustice prevalent for residents in them.

 In conclusion, the authors advocate for the three tenets of environmental justice (procedure, distribution and recognition) to “become the cement that will … connect the two pillars of Transfrontier Conservation Areas , namely biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods in a way that will help Transfrontier Conservation Areas to move from ‘coexistence between people and nature’ to ‘coexistence between people in nature’”.  Or, if I might paraphrase, move from the concept of People and Nature to People and the rest of Nature.

This paper is a great read, with much nice thinking and lots of analysis. If you have exhausted your post-Christmas reading, then dip into this!