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‘Shared earth’ conservation promises to prioritize nature and people

A women working in a tree nursery to supply reforestation in the Maji Mazuri and Makutano forests of Kenya. Photo by The Green Belt Movement courtesy of Ecosia.

A women working in a tree nursery to supply reforestation in the Maji Mazuri and Makutano forests of Kenya. Photo by The Green Belt Movement courtesy of Ecosia.

  • A new article in Science calls for conservation in Africa to take a “shared earth” approach that prioritizes both nature and people.
  • According to the authors, this approach would empower local communities, Indigenous people and governments to make decisions that would meet both equity and biodiversity goals.
  • The authors suggest retaining or restoring 20% of living and working areas to help address global conservation targets while giving local people the benefits of nature and building resilience against climate change.

“Let me turn on my video,” says David Obura halfway through our Zoom call. He holds up his phone so I can see the landscape behind him: rows of green tea plants on a small plantation in Muranga county in central Kenya, a region that’s been farmed for hundreds of years. The tea farms are nestled beside groves of trees. “There’s a lot of natural space still,” he says. “There’s a lot of forested areas alongside the rivers.”

It’s estimated that nearly half of Kenya’s land is being used for agriculture, while about 12% of land is designated as protected areas. Most other African countries also tend to favor agricultural land and communities over reserves and national parks, which may appear to put the African continent in a difficult position to do its part in protecting 30% of its land and seas by 2030 as per the new targets set out in the first draft of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). There is also a disproportionate burden on the Global South to implement protected areas due to its high concentration of biodiversity.

To address these issues, a group of experts have suggested a new way of approaching conservation in Africa that focuses on the maintenance and restoration of “shared spaces,” where both nature and people’s lives can be preserved, much like the tea farms of Muranga.

In an article published Aug. 13 in Science, a team of African scientists, conservationists and community leaders present a framework that favors a “ground up” approach that would empower local communities, Indigenous peoples and governments to make decisions that would benefit both people and nature, meeting equity and biodiversity goals. The authors suggest retaining or restoring 20% of all living and farming areas to not only address the targets of the GBF but also to give people the benefits of nature. For instance, natural spaces can give people access to clean water and support pollination, which, in turn, could help remove pressure from existing protected areas.

Obura, founding director of conservation organization CORDIO East Africa and lead author of the article, says this approach can help Africa meet conservation targets while breaking away from the colonial ideals that tend to govern conservation efforts in Africa right now.

Vegetation of the upper alpine zone of Mt. Kenya. Image by Rhett A. Butler

“The problem with the conservation model now is that it alienates local people and doesn’t really prioritize nature where they live,” Obura told Mongabay. “And so we really need to be working on conservation so that it benefits people directly and that makes them much more interested in conservation as custodians and nature. I think that’s why we really need it now more than ever in Africa.”

Nnimmo Bassey, an environmental justice advocate in Nigeria who was not involved in the study, says the new paper opens up a discussion that should have been happening a long time ago.

“The world is moving rapidly in the direction of commodification of nature, exclusion of majority peoples, and actually even ignoring people as if they’re disposable commodities, because of the very strict emphasis on economics,” he told Mongabay. “The approach that I really find very interesting in the report is that … people [who] depend on the environment and biodiversity must be consulted.”

Obura said any restoration efforts involved in this “shared earth” approach should take climate change into consideration to help build resilience into African landscapes. “We’ve got to think about what plants and what natural habitats will be optimal in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, and how those will evolve with the changing climate.”

On Aug. 9, the IPCC released an assessment report that said it’s inevitable for global warming to intensify over the next 30 years based on past and current CO2 emissions from human activities. While there may still be time to prevent things from getting even worse, the window to do so is very small, the report suggests.

“We need this framework now,” Obura said, “even more so with the amount of climate change we’re facing.”

Citation:  

Obura, D. O., Katerere, Y., Mayet, M., Kaelo, D., Msweli, S., Mather, K., … Nantongo, P. (2021). Integrate biodiversity targets from local to global levels. Science, 373(6556), 746-748. doi:10.1126/science.abh2234

Banner image caption: A women working in a tree nursery to supply reforestation in the Maji Mazuri and Makutano forests of Kenya. Photo by The Green Belt Movement courtesy of Ecosia. 

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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