Fences and Fines

Historically, the conservationist’s program was a strategy of protection. It aimed to preserve certain areas, their landscapes and species by the exclusion of people as residents and limitation of other forms of human impact, such as bans on hunting. Conversely, foreign tourists and scientists were actively encouraged to visit, and hunting was one of the main attractions. This preservationist model, which has been called ‘fortress conservation’ or the ‘fence and fines approach’ (or just plain old colonialism) was widely accepted by conservationists worldwide until recent times.

Fortress conservation has its origins in the Victorian era when the popularity of natural history, the growth of science, an understanding of the importance of extinctions and the acknowledgement of the relationship between humans and nature (much of this thanks to Charles Darwin) together with a spiritual and aesthetic reverence of the natural world gave rise to a humanitarian regard for animals and a sense of responibility. Humankind was thought to be a destructive force, while the preservation of wildernesses was seen as the method of salvation.

These ideas were imposed upon the developing world during the spread of colonialism and were hugely influential on the conservation agendas of post-colonialist governments. In Africa, many protected areas were created as hunting reserves for the sole use of expatriate European men, while local people who hunted on this land were deemed poachers. Most contemporary government conservation departments in sub-Saharan Africa were originally agencies established to defend the exclusivity of hunting reserves. 1

A programme which emphasizes long-term communal interests at the expense of short-term individual benefits will meet with resistance. 2 The real costs of conservation are carried mainly by rural populations, particularly those on the boundaries of settlements and conservation areas. The costs incurred are the loss of land, access and resources, damage to crops, danger to life and property, and loss of opportunity. It is often difficult for these people to live without breaking the law. In turn, there is a cost to the state in controlling the demand on wildlife resources through law enforcement and public relations. 'Fortress conservation' requires an essentially militaristic enforcement strategy, which heightens conflict between local populations and those who stand to gain from the reserves.

Fortress Conservationists: an endangered species?

In the 1980s, people began to doubt the effectiveness of fortress conservation. Conservation goals were not being achieved. Poaching was on the rise, driving many species close to extinction. Habitats outside of protected areas were rapidly being converted to agricultural and grazing land. It was realised that biodiversity conservation programs couldn’t be limited to parks and protected areas. Conflict between the reserves and the locals was reaching a critical level. Essentially a war over wildlife resources was being waged between local people and paramilitary style park rangers. With an increasing human population, widespread poverty and the awareness of the costs that rural people were paying for conservation, development and human rights groups criticised fortress conservation for stifling rural development and for committing human rights violations where people were forced to resettle. Global economic changes meant levels of state funding were reduced, so wildlife reserves had less money to enforce their boundaries.

Making wildlife pay

In response to this combination of factors there was a radical shift in thinking on conservation policy, away from state enforced environment protection and towards a less eco-centric model, ‘community conservation’.

The central concepts of community conservation are:
That conservation must entail the participation of local people and not exclude them either physically, from protected areas, or politically, from the conservation process. To achieve this, mutually beneficial management partnerships between rural communities, the state and other stakeholders are needed in place of the antagonistic relations caused by protectionist conservation strategies.3

Local communities must benefit to offset the costs they bear and to resolve the humans vs. wildlife conflict . Many species of large African mammals are incompatible with most forms of rural development. The wildlife must be viewed as a natural resource that can be managed to achieve both developmental and conservation goals.1 By making wildlife profitable for rural communities, conservation can be made sustainable. From the awareness of human development needs, or from the growing realisation that for conservation to be sustainable it has to have local support, numerous projects were set up in the 1990s aiming to integrate the development needs of rural communities with the conservation of wildlife. The ‘community conservation’ model replaced the preservationist approach of ‘fortress conservation’.

What a great idea! Does it work?

There have been misgivings over whether such schemes are effective in gaining the support of communities. How the community perceives a project depends critically on the level at which they participate in the scheme and how much they benefit from it.

CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources) is a community conservation project; implemented in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s and widely regarded as one of Africa’s most successful programs, it receives huge financial donations (backed by US$33 million from 1989-99 from US, UK, EU, Japan and others).7 The project is implemented through local government – the Rural District Councils (RDCs), principally in communal areas adjacent to national parks and protected wildlife areas. Communal areas are state owned and were created by the colonial administration as African labour reserves.

Most people living in the communal areas today are poor, black, rural, subsistence farmers. The project’s main method of exploiting the wildlife resource is trophy hunting, which provides 90% of revenue generated by the scheme.6 It is seen as the most profitable of wildlife enterprises, with minimum environmental degradation. The trophy hunting industry is dominated by safari operators (SOs) who lease an area to operate within from the RDC and are allocated a wildlife quota by the Department for National Parks and Wildlife Management (DNPWM). The SO develops the necessary infrastructure and manages the wildlife area, and a percentage of the income they generate is paid to the RDC. The RDC distributes a percentage of this to the relevant local communities, and the villagers decide whether they want their share in cash or for it to be put towards a community development project.

The philosophy of the CAMPFIRE project is one of "sustainable rural development that enables rural communities to manage, and benefit directly from, indigenous wildlife"7. However, there is little evidence to show that CAMPFIRE has contributed significantly to rural development. In reality the amounts generated for communities are insignificant, constituting only 2-4% of household income4. Also seriously undermining the program is the fact that under existing law, people within the communal areas are not allowed to use wildlife for their own social, economic or cultural purposes. Local communities therefore regard the benefits they receive from the project as inadequate compensation for the loss of their wildlife resources. The program has also failed to increase employment opportunities for local people and to stimulate the local economy. Private businesses – the safari operating industry and external organisations - are benefiting most from the donor funds generated through the program. This unfair distribution of benefits is exacerbated by the gross mismanagement of funds by the RDCs, meaning that communities never receive their full share of the money.6

That sucks!

The term community is often used to invoke a sense of tradition, homogeneity and consensus. But most rural communities are far from being homogenous, consisting of a diverse mix of people with different opinions, ideas and interests. Most community conservation programmes fail to grasp this. Local leaders don’t always use their position to benefit the people they represent and sometimes act instead in their own self-interest.

In a study of the attitudes of villagers participating in a community wildlife management project associated with the Selous Game Reserve (SGR) in Tanzania, questionnaire survey data was used to examine attitudes towards wildlife conservation, the SGR, the project and the Tanzanian department of wildlife3. Among other things, they found that gender and social standing strongly influenced people’s perceptions of these. Members of the social elite dominate the affairs of village public life and receive disproportionate benefits from the project, which has a positive effect on how they view it. Women however, who are marginalised in village society, tend to have a negative opinion of the program. They are less informed about wildlife management and their attitudes on conservation are determined largely by their experience in the spheres of domestic and farm work.

As this and many other examples demonstrate, it's really important that the distribution of benefits is as equal as possible, taking into account the socio-economic differentiation of the community. If this isn't addressed, those not benefiting will be at the very least noncompliant with the project, if not actively seeking to undermine it. Limiting input to certain ‘representative’ members of the community is not sufficient and puts into question the true level of community involvement the project is acheiving.

With little or no participation in the design, planning and implementation of the project, no access, use or management of wildlife resources and only insignificant indirect benefits received, it is unsurprising that there is very little grass roots support for CAMPFIRE. People don’t view the project as their own creation and are unwilling to undertake work for it and related community projects without payment. This affects the ecological sustainability of the project. The term ‘community conservation’, which implies local level, voluntary, people-centred, participatory, decentralized, village-based management is evidently not applicable in the case of CAMPFIRE. In reality, it is a partly decentralized programme of wildlife conservation and use. CAMPFIRE exemplifies the way in which community conservation projects have been designed and implemented in such a way as to be nothing more than a bureaucratic, liberalized form of the old model of ‘fortress conservation’.

So what's the alternative?

The only conceivable way in which wildlife resources could be conserved and used sustainably whilst involving the full participation and support of rural communities would be to decentralize power to the communities6. Doing this would enable them to decide upon suitable conservation and development goals. Legislation or other means would be required to grant the communities indisputable ownership of the resource, the ability to exclude outsiders from it, and to enforce the agreed method of management. However, the empowerment of local communities has not been and is unlikely to become a primary objective of most conservation programmes. The main aim of most conservation projects, including CAMPFIRE, is to protect wildlife resources, whereas for local communities rural development is paramount.

What can be done?

In cases such as this it is difficult to see how both conservation and development can be achieved in unison. It is equally difficult to see how true community conservation projects could exist in the buffer zones of protected areas administered by the state. Preserving biodiversity will always be the main objective of any conservation program in these areas and so in both these situations for conservation goals to be achieved substantial compensation must be integral to the project. The preservation of biodiversity has always depended primarily upon the existence of protected areas. If protected areas are achieving their purpose, as is indicated by research5 then it seems clear that parks should remain a central component of conservation strategies.

The ecological consequences of the adoption of the ‘community conservation’ model are unclear. Most projects have not been in existence for long enough to assess their environmental effects and therefore there are very few authoritative analyses on the subject. In the case of the CAMPFIRE project, ecological sustainability has not been achieved, due to mismanagement of the trophy hunting quota system, continued subsistence and commercial poaching, failure to resolve the human/wildlife conflict and the financial dependence of wildlife management activities on income generated by private SOs.

Conservation programs that attempt to achieve both conservation of wildlife and human development face an incredibly difficult task. It is essentially a balancing act between the rights of human beings and those of our fellow living organisms. Do we have the right to tell the poor to remain in poverty to protect biodiversity?


1.Hulme and Murphree 2001 African wildlife and livelihoods

2.Bell 1987 Conservation with a Human Face, Conservation in Africa

3.Gillingham and Lee 1999 The impact of wildlife related benefits on the conservation attitudes of local people around the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania Environmental --Conservation 26 218-228

4.Patel 1998 Sustainable Utilisation and African Wildlife Policy. The case of Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE

5.Bruner et al 2001 Effectiveness of parks in protecting tropical biodiversity Science 291: 125-8

6.Murombedzi Devolution and stewardship in Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE program J. Int. Dev. 11 287-293

7.Alexander and MacGregor 2000 Wildlife and politics: CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe Development and change 31 605-627

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