Conservation: From Academia to on the Ground Realities

By Sarah Tolbert, IGCP Intern (above left with IGCP conservation team)

As a graduate student studying conservation and development, I’ve read my fair share of articles critiquing and praising integrated conservation and development (ICD) interventions. I thought I had a decent grasp on what interventions tended to work and which ones were doomed to fail.

Yet, in my short time interning with IGCP, I’ve discovered that conservation is more nuanced and complex than I could have ever imagined. From balancing relationships between local governments, communities, and park officials, to encouraging private enterprises to take up the banner of community development, each piece of the puzzle brings its own complexities.

My first foray into this fascinating world came courtesy of the Nkuringo Community Conservation Development Fund (NCCDF) in Uganda. Funded by the revenue from ownership of an upscale lodge, NCCDF initiates projects in nearby communities with the end goal of improving livelihoods. I visited with IGCP’s programme manager, Wellard Makambo, who was there to lead the NCCDF members through a self-evaluation of the organization’s capacity. Not an easy task! With Wellard facilitating the discussion, I sat off to the side and listened as members debated the strengths and weakness of their organization.

Wellard, left, facilitates NCCDF management to self-assess their institution and its capacity near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

Wellard, left, facilitates NCCDF management to self-assess their institution and its capacity near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

The cement walls of the office, which I’m sure could speak volumes about the challenges of conservation, paid tribute to the strengths and accomplishments of the group. A list detailing 16 achievements hung on the wall and included: scholarships for nurses, water harvesting, tea planting, and the construction of a local health center.

During my visit, I had the chance to visit the tea plantation, one of the accomplishments on the list. The idea, as Uganda’s country coordinator Stephen Asuma explained to me, is that the tea will not only provide finical return to the group, but once fully grown, the closed tea canopy will deter gorillas from visiting nearby crops. I’m not a tea expert by any means, the plants in the buffer zone looked like they were thriving.

The buffer zone around Bwindi. It is multiple use so the outzone is used to grow tea for profit. This plot is about 2 years old and will start producing tea leaves in another 2-3 years.

The buffer zone around Bwindi. It is multiple use so the outzone is used to grow tea for profit. This plot is about 2 years old and will start producing tea leaves in another 2-3 years.

What I found most interesting though, were not the accomplishments. Instead I was intrigued by what challenges the NCCDF reported facing. Need for further human resources and finical management training were cited as areas of improvements. One recent project mentioned was an animal husbandry initiative that gave pigs to poorer members of the community. One member lamented that it was, “…a failure because people ate all of the pigs before more could be born and now there are none left.” Wellard thoughtfully pointed out, “If you were hungry and had pigs, what would you do?”

Nodding in agreement, the NCCDF members steered the conversation towards the same discussion that practitioners and policy makers continue to have today. How can we effectively distribute the benefits from protected areas to local communities? The hidden complexities of conservation are something that all conservation organizations struggle with. The challenge of effectively distributing benefits from the parks is a challenge, yes, but from that brief meeting, I am optimistic that it is a challenge that NCCDF will overcome.

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