A different revolution in Africa that could teach the West lessons

By Rocky Barker

The African revolutions that make the headlines of American newspapers have either been carried out by charismatic leaders like Nelson Mandela or by men with guns like we see now in the Democratic Congo.

I saw a revolution in Africa this summer that started in some of its poorest villages. People dominated for generations by chiefs, colonial masters from Europe and lately political strongmen, have taken the first steps to take control of their lives and their land.

Federal governments have restored to villagers power to control the wildlife with which they share the forests and the grassland. They are protecting the elephants, buffalo and lions that once threatened their crops and even their lives.

These villagers, many who took part in the frenzied plunder of wildlife that occurred during the unsettled times of the last 25 years, now protect it because they own it. The game, when sold to rich safari hunters, puts money into their pockets.

"The wildlife is ours now, not the government's,'' said Amon Banda, a tall thin Zambian who chairs his village committee that controls its wildlife. "There are no poachers here now.''

This revolution has many lessons for us in the American West. We share far more similarities with villagers like Banda than I expected to find when I went to Africa. A century of development has left much of the best wildlife habitat here destroyed. And residents of rural communities have developed deep animosity toward endangered species like grizzly bears and wolves, especially since stepped up federal efforts to restore their populations. My two-week trip to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi was sponsored by the Portland-based Thoreau Institute. It was led by Karl Hess Jr., a writer, economist and ecologist from New Mexico, and included environmentalists Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, Dave Foreman of the Wildlands Institute and free market economists such as Randal O'Toole and Bob Nelson of the University of Maryland. We tromped through the lowveldt of a Zimbabwe ranch only several hundred feet away from an endangered black rhinocerous. We sat in an open car as a pride of lions walked so close we could touch them on their way into a night hunt. And I spend a day and a night in a Tambuku village. I'm convinced that what I saw work in Africa can work here too. If we can combine enlightened self interest with local democratic control, people will protect their quality of life and the wildlife that is an international resource.

In Chembe, Banda's village on the edge of the Luangwa National Park, women once carried water on their heads five miles a day. But new wells paid for with funds from hunters, put wells near their homes.

Other villagers used the money for grinding mills so their women did not have to continue the back-breaking chore of pounding maize into flour, their staple food.

Chembe spends some of its money to pay game guards to stop poaching. Other village wildlife money goes for habitat improvement projects.

Hunting money doesn't match they income they get from cotton and other cash crops yet. But as wildlife populations the hunting revenues will rise. An elephant hunt can bring in $36,000 and to people who make less than $300 per capita per year that can begin to add up fast.

There is another benefit from these programs. For the first time many of these villagers are learning how democracy works on a local basisThough elections have been held in all three countries I visited, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, democracy hasn't really taken root.

In Malawi for instance, thousands of villagers were forced to leave their villages and lush fields on the temperate Nyika Plateau so that the government could expand the size of Nyika National Park. They didn't ask for comments. There were no public hearings and no compensation.

When some people tried to go back they were beaten up. These villagers now live in mosquito-infested lowlands where their low tolerance to malaria caused many to die.

The new government has restored to these villagers rights to harvest the surplus of thatch grass for roofing, mushrooms, honey, termites and fish inside the park. Since poaching is ongoing, there is not enough wildlife yet to hunt or share.

But in villages where the programs have been running for a few years, poaching already has dropped dramatically. Even the hope of future wildlife benefits, along with humans' natural love of animals, has been enough to change attitudes.

These programs are not without problems. In Zimbabwe, where the government's CAMPFIRE - or Communal Areas Management Program, was the pioneer of village-based conservation, some villagers aren't getting the money they earn. District Councils, comparable to small state governments, control the programs not the local villages. That extra layer is providing a disconnect between villagers and wildlife benefits that threatens the success of the entire program.

Animal rights groups don't like programs that encourage trophy hunting. They would prefer these program rely instead on photo-tourism.

Unfortunately, tourists don't spend anywhere near as much as hunters. And many of these areas are far from the regular tourist routes, good airport connections and even roads.

In the United States, our rural communities can tap into tourism to benefit from wildlife. Unfortunately this is not always as direct as the African model. And as communities like Jackson Hole and West Yellowstone demonstrate, tourism can get out of control and overwhelm a community's ability to protect its own.

But if both federal and state governments will restore power to local communities to protect their wildlife, they will take this responsibility at least as seriously as managers hundreds and thousands of miles away. People like Amon Banda proved this to me as they belie the myth that people will only protect the environment after they become rich.