New National Biodiversity Economy Strategy is a curate’s egg — only good in parts
Adam Cruise -- Daily Maverick

Will government’s new strategy really benefit people and nature, or simply lead to massive over-consumption of natural resources, creating unrealistic expectations in an attempt to win the rural vote?

At the recent Biodiversity and Investment Indaba in Gauteng launched by government to showcase South Africa’s new biodiversity strategy, President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised the need to bring local communities to the centre of the biodiversity economy, stating that rural communities “had always suffered” but the new strategy would focus on transformation to ensure that they benefited.

The National Biodiversity Economy Strategy (NBES) released by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) in mid-March for public consultation, aims to “optimise biodiversity-based business potentials across the terrestrial, freshwater, estuarine, marine and coastal systems, and to contribute to economic growth with local beneficiation, job creation, poverty alleviation, and food security”.

In parts, South Africa’s broad accordance with the treaty is creditable. The strategy aims to increase “conservation real estate” from 20 million hectares to 34 million by 2040, and the involvement of impoverished local communities is definitely a step in the right direction.

However, while the overall plan is well-founded, there remain major sections of the strategy that have less to do with securing biodiversity and the economic benefit for the poor, and more about exploiting the natural environment for commercial gain that will benefit a select few.

Challenges and empty promises
Since the 1970s, South Africa has adhered to a policy of sustainable utilisation of its natural resources, which is essentially the prolonged use of wildlife and natural resources for sustaining human economic wellbeing. The new strategy intends to expand on this. But it runs the risk of creating unrealistic expectations, as has occurred with the widely acknowledged failures in redistribution of land to emerging farmers.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa and Creecy defend controversial ‘biodiversity business’ plan

Historically, the human economic benefit from wildlife excluded the majority of South Africans, especially those rural communities living alongside biodiverse hotspots, many of whom have no security of tenure due to inequitable land ownership policies.

One of the central pillars is that the process must be equitable. That the government strategy aims to address that problem is commendable. But therein lies the challenge. Promising biodiversity utilisation as a means for economic upliftment for millions of impoverished rural South Africans when biodiversity is under siege is, for the most part, unrealistic, and opens the door to rampant exploitation and corruption.

A report on The State of Provincial Reserves In South Africa presented to the Portfolio Committee for Forestry, Fisheries and Environment in February 2024 clearly indicated that numerous South African protected areas are unable to fulfil their conservation objectives due to poor provincial management and lack of funding, with many of these in a state of collapse.

Most reserves are unable to meet their conservation objectives, let alone deliver benefits to surrounding communities. Thus, for the NBES to work, government needs to first iron out these significant problems, failing which communities will simply appropriate the land.

There is frequent mention of the need for transformation in the NBES. However, it is questionable whether the strategy genuinely aims to transform the wildlife sector or has been turned into a ploy to garner the rural vote that the ANC so desperately needs. Sectors of the wildlife economy are largely untransformed, with, for example, only 101 (4%) of 2,786 registered professional hunters who may be categorised as previously disadvantaged individuals, according to an answer to a parliamentary question in 2022 by Minister Barbara Creecy.

Trophy hunting benefits questioned
Central to the success of the NBES is trophy hunting and game ranching for the meat industry. Currently, almost all trophy hunting and game ranching takes place on private land owned by wealthy landowners. Surrounding these farms, many communities live in abject poverty. A study has shown that in some cases, farm labourers who have traditionally lived on and worked the land, have been removed and are without access to meaningful employment.

Goal two of the NBES is “consumptive use of game from extensive wildlife systems at scale that drive transformation and expanded sustainable conservation compatible land-use” with the intention to “increase the GDP contribution for (sic) consumptive use of game from extensive wildlife systems from R4.6-billion (2020) to R27.6-billion by 2036”. There is, though, no clear explanation of how this will be achieved.

In 2022 (the latest year for which figures are available), around 6,000 international trophy hunters shot more than 36,500 wild animals (according to DFFE professional hunting statistics). By calculating the current annual increase in real terms, after removing inflation, this means a GDP increase from R5-billion (including a contribution of R1.8-billion from trophy hunting) in 2022 to more than R13-billion by 2036, which is an increase in real terms of 7.6% per annum.

Naturally, this will have to be underpinned by an increase in hunters and their prey, so by 2036, more than 16,500 international hunters will be required to shoot almost 100,000 animals annually. Therefore, a total of close to one million animals will have to be trophy hunted during this period, which includes more than 10,000 lions, 1,300 elephants, 3,000 white rhino and 30,000 buffalo. It does not appear plausible that these increased numbers of animals will suddenly materialise in “extensive wildlife systems”, nor that the international demand for these exists.

National Biodiversity Economy Strategy

(Source: National Biodiversity Economy Strategy)

The fixation with trophy hunting as a means to expand the economy also comes at a time when trophy hunting is in a state of decline and is no longer able to pay for its ecological footprint. Foreign hunters coming to South Africa have declined by 62.4% in 14 years, from 16,594 in 2008 to 6,242 in 2022.

The number of hunters in countries that provide trophy hunters to Africa has dropped significantly, with a decline in the US of 18.5% between 1991 and 2016, and in France a drop of 50% in 40 years. With a significant and sustained decline in trophy hunting, how then does the government intend to dramatically increase hunting in the next few years in the face of mounting international trophy import bans?

A confusing aspect of the NBES is its plan to “stimulate the domestic market in rhino horn and elephant ivory… For example, health clinics to administer traditional remedies using rhino horn for health tourists from the Far East or ivory carving done locally for sale and export for personal use”.

Most demand for rhino horn is now for use as status symbols rather than for use in traditional remedies (where all evidence discredits any health benefits) and ivory may not be exported, carved or otherwise.

The strategy makes mention of sellers benefiting “when international markets become favourable”. This indicates that the government is banking on a future international trade in rhino horn and ivory. That seems unlikely since trends at successive meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have shown trade bans being held firmly in place.

Creating expectations of trade is likely to open the door to an increase in poaching of both species, as well as the illicit trade in rhino horn and ivory.

Community leaders not convinced
At the Biodiversity and Investment Indaba, traditional leaders and community representatives took the opportunity to raise their concerns. Many said they had been made these promises before, but throughout successive ministers and departments, little has changed.

Jabu Nyami, a wildlife game farm operator from the Pilgrim’s Rest area in Mpumalanga, stated that community members, especially women, who are poorly represented in the wildlife economy, needed access to land, fencing, training, capacity, development, financial resources and markets.

“We ask the government to please stop talking,” she said to the assembled delegates. “We need funding because without funding we are not going anywhere.” Nyami also mentioned that her land, which she rents, is fenceless and is currently inundated with poachers. “We need security and wildlife monitors… because poaching is a problem,” she said.

A representative for People & Parks in the Western Cape criticised the strategy for being “Westernised and colonialised” where commercial interests would take precedence over smallholder businesses and individuals. He said there was no condition in the plan that would protect small-scale entrepreneurs from bigger commercial interests. “The commercial sector will get stronger, while smallholders will get weaker under these conditions,” he said.

Veteran conservationist Karen Trendler, who also attended the indaba, reiterated the general sentiment, saying that some communities were disillusioned and desperate, having heard promises before. “Whilst the NBES intentions are good — transformation, equity, poverty alleviation, recognition of indigenous knowledge — we need to be careful about creating unrealistic expectations. Genuine ongoing engagement with communities and traditional leaders is needed to ensure that what is offered is what is wanted and needed, and not presumed.”

Ultimately, the NBES has merit in expressing the need to expand the biodiversity footprint, and that impoverished communities must take a central role in the protection of and benefit from biodiversity is worthy of commendation. However, it is in the goals and the implementation where this strategy potentially fails.

The blind adherence to trophy hunting and game ranching as a means to achieve grand biodiversity objectives, and the promises of mass poverty alleviation, are unrealistic and dangerous. The NBES appears to be an over-ambitious plan, that unless amended, could fail the natural environment and those communities forced to rely on natural resources for their economic wellbeing. DM

This article is based on Dr Adam Cruise’s recent doctorate in philosophy at Stellenbosch University.

Dr Adam Cruise is an investigative environmental journalist, travel writer and academic. He has contributed to a number of international publications, including National Geographic and The Guardian, covering diverse topics from the plight of elephants, rhinos and lions in Africa to coral reef rejuvenation in Indonesia. Cruise is a doctor of philosophy, specialising in animal and environmental ethics, and is the editor of the online Journal of African Elephants.

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