February 02nd was annual World Wetlands Day, carrying a theme of “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction“. A number of issues come to mind when thinking of risks to wetlands, with the most common being climate change. However, just as much as we think of biophysical risks to these spectacular landscapes, we have to apportion a similar concern to the soft side of risks, being the prevailing disconnect of wetlands with people’s social and cultural values inherent within the protected area model.
Suryeing cultural heritage of wetlands
This is significant in most of sub-Saharan Africa, where setting aside of landscapes is seen by most governments as a step forward in sustainable preservation. But does this bring sustainable conservation?
In my work that looks at overlaying cultural values in otherwise wilderness and and wildlife landscapes such as the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site, I have observed a risk created by a biased focus on biophysical conservation, at the exclusion, or rather ignorance of the socio-cultural and psycho-social values tied to these landscapes. Detailed discussions of these examples can be found in my earlier publications on the subject at the following journal article (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13527250902890811)
and a book chapter (http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-319-32017-5_4).
The prevailing approaches to ‘conservation’ (it is rather preservation), are nurturing sub-Saharan communities to become indifferent to the landscapes because they do not recognise and acknowledge local populations’ inherent identities that already exists in these wetlands landscapes (now protected areas), and can be brought out through archaeological, ethnological, anthropological focus to conservation.
Most ‘conservationists’ focus only on the biophysical landscape, the wilderness and wildlife values of these landscapes at the exclusion of the socio-cultural and psycho-social values that carry potential to compel communities to perceive themselves as connected to the areas and therefore inherently responsible for them, with or without wildlife profits emanating from business venture agreements. For African protected wetlands areas the connections of people and landscape and consequently a nurture of responsibility can be achieved by overlaying the archaeologies, ethnologies, and folklores and folklifes associated with the people that inhabited these landscapes in the past and in the present, and showing these as a package of what constitute the overal use of the landscape, whether in tourism or simple subsistence uses. Currently what transpires in most protected African wetlands is the emphasis on disconnecting the people heritage (socio-cultural and psyscho-social) from the biophysical heritage, and calling all that conservation when in fact it is preservation. This is the same practice that see listing of wetlands such as Okavango Delta, solely as ‘nature’ environments when in fact they are ‘mixed (nature and culture’ value environments. This in itself does not enhance the sustainability of the landscape but rather creates either a nurtured indifference to the landscape by the people as they are disconnected, or creates a resentment borne from the disconnection that translates to over-harvesting and/or poaching within the landscapes where access is finally secured in measures that later on translate as illegal.
The sustainable approach will be to nurture the people’s connection to the landscape by recognising, acknowledging, overlaying, juxtaposing and fully interpreting their identities in the new mediums that have now emerged as ways through which these landscapes are now interpreted. Tourism is one of the most popular mediums, but not necessarily the only and best medium. More in-depth discussions of the non-sustainable nature of disconnecting people (cultures) through the protected area management approach can be read in chapter 2 of the book titled African cultural heritage Conservation and Management: Theory and Practice from Southern Africa (2016), available at the following web-link: http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-32017-5_2
Therefore as we ponder on what constitute “risk” to wetlands on Wetlands day 2017, it is not enough to all be talking of climate change, which is the obvious mention. I would like for us to move away from the biophysical risk and focus on the cultural-psycho-social disconnect risk which leads to socio-political issues relating to the use of wetlands in sub-Saharan African in particular where they appear in protected areas. In our segregated disciplinary approaches, we see African wetlands for their biophysical value, which in the modern economic centered governances automatically translates to tourism revenue and more economic investments. But we fail to look at what protected wetlands’ future is if it is disconnected from the people surrounding it, being local populations. The book on ‘African Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management (2016) (http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319320151) brings out discourses on how international conventions and disciplinary approaches are fuelling these disconnects instead of using cultural values, inherent amongst local peoples, to enhance conservation of these landscapes by recognising and overlaying cultural values in protected wetlands of southern Africa. This can further add value to the tourism package that is given so much attention in African protected landscapes.