Na­tional parks for heal­ing and co­he­sion

CityPress - - Voices - Fun­dis­ile Mketeni voices@city­ Mketeni is CEO of SANParks

Con­ser­va­tion is a sci­ence that con­trib­utes to ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of our nat­u­ral and cul­tural her­itages. It’s a mul­ti­fac­eted field in­volv­ing stud­ies in­formed by pri­or­i­ties that evolve. Sustainable man­age­ment of na­tional parks re­quires ecosys­tem man­age­ment – not fo­cus­ing on in­di­vid­ual species but on their in­ter­ac­tions within and be­tween species and with their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. This is en­trenched with ev­i­dence-based de­ci­sion mak­ing.

The sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists in SA Na­tional Parks (SANParks) are glob­ally recog­nised for their ex­per­tise and ground­break­ing re­search con­ducted with our part­ners.

The early days of con­ser­va­tion fo­cused on preser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion­ism, but it has evolved to the ap­pre­ci­a­tion that peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties are an in­te­gral part of it. This re­quires in­no­va­tion, open­ness and a holis­tic ap­proach. It places sustainable use of re­sources at the cen­tre of con­ser­va­tion, which re­quires in­no­va­tive pro­grammes such as the wildlife econ­omy, ac­cess to and shar­ing of ben­e­fits that come from na­tional parks, and deeper part­ner­ships with direct de­scen­dants of those who once lived in the land­scapes that are our na­tional parks to­day. That is why sci­ence and in­no­va­tion must in­form man­age­ment de­ci­sions, not emo­tions and per­sonal in­ter­ests that in­ter­fere with con­serv­ing a net­work of na­tional parks.

Some­times we are er­ro­neously seen as pit­ting na­ture against hu­mans. Some draw un­nec­es­sary par­al­lels be­tween the im­por­tance of car­ing for na­ture and con­sid­er­ing peo­ple’s wel­fare. The re­al­ity is that peo­ple are part of na­ture and we need na­ture’s con­tri­bu­tions to peo­ple to im­prove hu­man well­be­ing. The say­ing “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it; what­ever he does to the web, he does to him­self” res­onates. Na­ture pro­vides sus­te­nance and good quality of life for those who visit our na­tional parks. We need to be mindful of our ac­tions and how they might im­pact neg­a­tively on what gives us life, peace, co­he­sion and en­joy­ment.

The sustainable sys­tem of na­tional parks strives to con­nect so­ci­ety to our nat­u­ral and cul­tural her­itages. Thus, com­mu­ni­ties in and around our na­tional parks are im­por­tant stake­hold­ers to con­ser­va­tion. In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties were the real cus­to­di­ans of our her­itages. His­tor­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions and lit­er­a­ture in­form us that be­fore Euro­pean set­tle­ment in South Africa, an­i­mals, plants, birds and all that cre­ation be­stowed on us was plen­ti­ful. In­dige­nous peo­ple had a gen­er­ally har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship with na­ture. This does not mean there were no hu­man-wildlife con­flicts on oc­ca­sion or that there were no cases of over­ex­ploita­tion.

David Fleminger, in his book Fair Game, states that the var­i­ous tribes in­te­grated them­selves in the nat­u­ral or­der and things started go­ing wrong from the 1500s when Euro­peans started hunt­ing and killing an­i­mals for their skins, ivory and horns, and as tro­phies; things that they wanted to trade and not nec­es­sar­ily needed to pro­long life.

How­ever, it is im­por­tant to recog­nise that it was a re­al­i­sa­tion early in the 20th cen­tury by the same Euro­pean set­tlers that if noth­ing was done, there wouldn’t be wildlife left for fu­ture generations. Moves were then mooted to safe­guard the re­main­ing wildlife against hunters and traders through the cre­ation of pro­tected ar­eas such as the Sabi River na­ture re­serve in the Kruger Na­tional Park.

How­ever, in­dige­nous peo­ple were forcibly dis­placed from their an­ces­tral land to cre­ate th­ese pro­tected ar­eas. They were not even al­lowed ac­cess to those ar­eas be­cause of the dis­crim­i­na­tion poli­cies of the day. They grew dis­il­lu­sioned and tried to make their own lives out­side the pro­tected ar­eas but their way of life was changed for­ever and their dig­nity taken away. They did not feel any con­nec­tion to those re­serves un­less they had rel­a­tives who were work­ing in­side them.

The vision of the old govern­ment was to pre­serve na­tional parks far away from any hu­man in­ter­fer­ence. This made some peo­ple think of them as places only for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing na­ture. The forced re­movals may also ex­plain the re­sent­ment that some Africans some­times feel to­wards na­tional parks and the wrong per­cep­tion that they do not care about con­ser­va­tion. The truth is that they were the first con­ser­va­tion­ists.

We are there­fore ad­vanc­ing the cause to pre­serve unique re­sources that tell sto­ries about peo­ple’s cul­tures and tra­di­tions as much as about nat­u­ral her­itage. Hence SANParks ac­knowl­edges its man­date to man­age the inheritance of South Africans for present and fu­ture generations.

This is why we see na­tional parks as places of heal­ing and na­tion build­ing, and as cat­a­lysts for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. We are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that our parks em­brace and re­flect our di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences; that they help us recog­nise what unites us more than what di­vides us and that, in turn, this will con­trib­ute to build­ing so­cial co­he­sion.

It is there­fore our or­gan­i­sa­tion’s pri­or­ity to en­sure that both our nat­u­ral and cul­tural her­itages are con­served, sus­tain­ably used and eq­ui­tably shared among the peo­ple of this beau­ti­ful coun­try.

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