The difficulties of conservation and development

Posted on 23 February 2011

 Article about the reality of conservation in the field.
If you read the objectives of the Explore! program, you can see there are three main objectives:

- Provide the volunteers with an insight of the challenges developing nations face for the conservation of their environment.

- Provide the volunteers with an insight of real conservation fieldwork.

- Provide the volunteers with the capacity to communicate their experience to others.

Well, all these objectives have been completely fulfilled. Especially the first two, as the third one depends more on our personal implication once we come back to our home countries.

But, more concretely, what did I learn?

We all know about the importance of preserving our natural heritage. Or, at least, this is a very widespread conception in the developed countries. And we can all mention several reasons for this. But none of us is so extremely dependant in their closest environment as people in developing nations are.

For them, their natural richness is the main source of food, water, resources and even monetary richness. The environment is their livelihood, and there are extremely and directly dependent on the health of their ecosystems. They drink the water that comes out of the forest, they use its wood for cooking and shelter, they hunt its animals for food… and very often they lack of the knowledge or the means to manage this resources in an adequate way.

For example, the general belief in the Vondrozo area is that, if you burn the plants in an area, afterwards they grow stronger and healthier. And this is only true a few times, after which the soil depletes its resources, and it comes as an obvious consequence that it is necessary to burn a new surface.

The most curious fact about this is that, often, they are conscious of this. Concretely, old people in the villages seemed extremely worried about these problems. They said that the forest is now way further from the villages than it used to be, and that water is scarcer, and hence the rice cultures are more difficult to irrigate. But the combination of the culture and the lack of alternatives avoided them from changing their habitudes.

Only with this small example (there are tons of them) we arrive to the most important lessons I learnt during my time in Madagascar: nature conservation can never be separated from socioeconomic development. And this is equally true in developed nations (concretely, in my home country, the confrontation between culture and conservation tends to be pretty frequent), but with the difference that it is much more difficult to achieve in developing countries.

You cannot tell people “don’t burn the forest!” if this is their way of live, “don’t hunt the animals” or “don’t mine for gold” if these are important income sources. It is necessary to provide alternatives, to teach ways to manage their resources more sustainably and efficiently, to generate new incomes, to grow their crops in a more efficient and ecological way. These were some of the things we were doing there, or at least trying.

Other important lesson we learnt is that both conservation and development are slow processes; you cannot pretend that they will happen rapidly, in a short time lapse. There are numberless barriers, challenges and difficulties that need to be addressed and solved: cultural conceptions and traditions, economic implications, analphabetism, bureaucratic obstacles, budget limitations and infrastructural difficulties. All of them make the objective of conservation extremely ambitious, but still worth to accomplish.

And it is because of all this difficulties from where we can extract the last lesson: conservation is made of teamwork. This means, it is not only the conservationist organizations that make conservation come true. It is necessary the collaboration of the governments, institutions and even commercial companies and brands. But, essentially, nothing of this would be possible without the collaboration and implication of the local people. And, once again, this is equally true in North and South. It is them who are going to make conservation a reality, because they will be the most profited ones from the benefits that it implies. This makes formation, education and divulgation essential tools for conservation and, also, development.

Sergio Rejado Abaina, volunteer in Vondrozo, Madagascar (September-December 2010)

Like crossing rivers in Madagascar, putting together conservation and development is not an easy task.
© WWF / Sergio Rejado Albaina