Post Conflict Conservation: A student’s perspective

Advocacy | 5/10/11

How can you justify conserving a wildlife species while there are people suffering? This is just one of the questions that Richard Milburn faced from others (and himself) as he set out to explore the role of conservation in a conflict or post conflict environment using the Virunga Massif as a case study.

What follows is his own impressions and thoughts as he wraps up his research and starts to distribute his academic findings. His post is entirely his own.

Soon, we will post a reflection by Katie Frohardt on her time as IGCP’s Rwanda Director from mid-1995 to mid-1997. She is currently Executive Director of Fauna & Flora International in the US and a member of the IGCP Board. So, stay tuned to this space for more on post conflict conservation.

I am Richard Milburn, a Masters student in post war recovery with the Post War Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU), at the University of York, UK. As part of my course, I had to conduct a two-month placement with an organisation working in a conflict or post conflict environment, and while there conduct research for my masters thesis. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to conduct my placement with IGCP, and look at the role of the conservation of natural resources in post war recovery.

Most of the conflicts around the world happen in biodiversity hotspots, or in countries that contain biodiversity hotspots, which can do significant environmental harm, and even when the conflict comes to an end, the post conflict period is often even more harmful. Understanding how to conduct effective conservation in conflict and post conflict periods is therefore crucial. The aim of my placement was to see how IGCP has, and continues to do this, and what lessons can be learned and applied elsewhere.

I also wanted to see ways in which conservation could be carried out effectively, but in such a way that was also beneficial to the communities living around national parks, and the nations and regions in which the national parks sat, and so how it could be better integrated into post war recovery theory and practise.

To do this, I looked at IGCP’s work with communities on livelihood projects in DRC and Rwanda and their efforts to reduce the affects of crop raiding, as well as the tourism schemes they helped set up and the Enterprise, Environment, and Equity in the Virunga Landscape of the Great Lakes Region (EEEGL) programme being implemented in partnership with CARE. Also at the international level, I was able to see the transboundary work being done including the Ranger Based Monitoring system, the revenue sharing scheme that has been set up, and the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC).

The livelihood scheme I focused mainly on was the beekeeping unions of cooperatives, seeing the work being carried out by IGCP staff and talking to members of the cooperatives about their experiences, and their expectations for the future. The beekeeping work helps to address the threat of illegal hives within the national parks, while also providing a good source of income to those involved and building and strengthening community organisations and cohesion, all helping to develop communities around the park and strengthen the rule of law.

Richard, left, tastes the sweet results of the beekeepers' work along with IGCP's species coordinator, Dr. Augustin Basabose.

Richard, left, tastes the sweet results of the beekeepers’ work along with IGCP’s species coordinator, Dr. Augustin Basabose.

Richard (back left) along with beekeepers of Virunga National Park's Mikeno Sector.

Richard (back left wearing a beekeeping hat and net) along with beekeepers of Virunga National Park’s Mikeno Sector.

The EEEGL programme is also similar, acting as a development project for communities around the national parks in Rwanda and Uganda. As it did not operate in DRC, which was of particular interest to me, this was one of many areas that allowed for a very informative comparison between the work being carried out in Rwanda and DRC.

The ranger based monitoring system was also interesting. In my courses we were taught a lot about targeting and then monitoring and evaluating interventions, and the RBM system does this effectively, in a relatively inexpensive manner, which utilises on-the-ground personnel and builds the capacity of the three wildlife services, and also other organisations working around the national parks to see which threats face the gorillas, and monitor the effects that humanitarian projects have on reducing these threats in different regions.

The work on tourism, both through the establishment of the SACOLA community organisation, and also through revenue sharing schemes at both the community and national level, also provide an example of how to help bring the benefits of income generated from conservation back to the communities who live around the parks. This simultaneously improves the equality of income distribution and helps conservation efforts, while also imposing its own limitations; the density of population around the gorilla habitats mean that tourism can never be their sole source of income for development, however it can still play an important role.

The international revenue sharing scheme, allowing for tourism revenue sharing between countries when a habituated mountain gorilla group crosses into a neighboring transboundary park, also helps conservation in DRC, where tourism is stunted due to the persisting conflict. This scheme also promotes cooperation between the three countries involved, which can in turn build trust and help to improve the relationship between the countries and their governments.

On top of this, the establishment of the GVTC is helping to improve transboundary collaboration further, and do so in such a way that is endorsed at a steadily higher level of government. That three countries on opposing sides of what was termed Africa’s World War can come together less than a decade later to cooperate over conservation shows its peacebuilding potential.

In keeping with IGCP’s work on bringing organisations to collaborate and work together, while with them I was able to visit several other nearby projects, organisations and staff, and compare and contrast their work with IGCP’s, all helping to build a bigger picture of the region and the issues involved, and seeing what each organisation did well or could improve further.

Before I left, I also managed to make a trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda. It was something I had wanted to do for years, and I didn’t want to leave without seeing face-to-face the animals around whom all the work I was looking at was based. I choose to see the Kwitonda group, who moved from DRC to Rwanda many years ago. Having spent time in both DRC and Rwanda and due to looking at how conservation can help to reduce conflicts, it seemed the perfect group to go and see, to make sure that my fee for the visit would be shared between DRC and Rwanda, through the revenue sharing scheme IGCP helped to set up.

Richard Milburn with the Kwitonda family group, a group that crossed from DRC to Rwanda years ago, prompting the finalization of a transboundary agreement on mountain gorilla tourism.

Richard Milburn with the Kwitonda family group, a group that crossed from DRC to Rwanda years ago, prompting the finalization of a transboundary agreement on mountain gorilla tourism.

When I talked to people about conservation and my placement with IGCP, both before and after my visit, I constantly heard two criticisms: firstly no one could understand how saving gorillas had anything to do with post war recovery, and secondly how I could justify saving gorillas while there were people dying. After my time with IGCP I am now able to provide answers to these questions, and to demonstrate that conservation can be a very useful post war recovery tool not only to conserve valuable species and ecosystems, but also to promote peacebuilding and development in conflict afflicted countries.

IGCP’s work provided a perfect case study for looking at these issues in my thesis, entitled ‘Guerrillas in the Mist: are transboundary protected areas an effective tool to promote peacebuilding and development in a post conflict environment?’ My thesis has now been handed in for marking, and I am to deliver a talk on it at a Conservation and Conflict conference at King’s College London, in October. This should help spread word to a wider audience about the valuable and worthwhile work IGCP is doing, along with the huge potential benefits for similar work to be carried out in other regions. It’s not just about gorillas, but about making things work for the other primates in the region- human beings.

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) currently consists of Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature. We recognise that the earth's survival is dependent on humanity's ability to maintain a healthy and balanced environment that includes all species of wildlife.