The Pathway to Sustainable Conservation
A Conversation with Kenyan Environmentalist and Changemaker, Akshay Vishwanath
Africa is well known for its spectacular wildlife and the incredible diversity of its flora and fauna. Conservation efforts on the continent, however, have too often disrupted the interdependent relationship between local communities and their environments. Kenyan nature lover and environmentalist Akshay Vishwanath, who was named one of the Top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders, is on a mission to change this. He shares his perspective on the failures of wildlife conservation in Kenya and Africa as a whole, highlighting the importance of handing over the reins to indigenous and local communities, and how his work at Maliasili is driving change by strengthening local conservation organisations.
Have you always been passionate about the environment?
I have been fascinated about the outdoors from a very young age — probably from the time I was 5 or 6 years old. I think all the time I spent with my family and friends going on picnics, safaris and other travels gave me that inclination. This fascination has translated into my love for nature and the environment in general. My mother recently confessed a few years ago that when I was a toddler and went into a crying fit or tantrum, she would put me in front of the TV and switch on a wildlife documentary. I would immediately quieten down and watch in complete awe. So I guess you could say I was brainwashed into having a passion for the environment!
As a major wildlife destination, Kenya is at the forefront of sustainable tourism in Africa. Yet wildlife resources in the country are steadily declining. What will it take to reverse this trend?
I believe one of the failures of wildlife conservation across the continent, not just in Kenya, has been the perpetuation of the myth that good wildlife conservation must be inherently linked to wildlife tourism. The two — wildlife conservation and wildlife tourism — have quite different objectives, and therefore, should be treated separately. Of course, we must acknowledge that wildlife tourism is just one of the many spin-offs of successful wildlife conservation, but it is not the only one nor is it the priority.
This distinction and separation is important because, for example, the history of wildlife conservation work is replete with examples of displacement of local communities and indigenous peoples in order to create areas of “pristine wilderness” for the sake of tourists. This is not conservation. It is more akin to creating playgrounds for the wealthy. Such actions completely ignore the critical role local communities and indigenous peoples have played in maintaining healthy habitats and wildlife populations for centuries.
The history of wildlife conservation is replete with examples of displacement of local communities and indigenous peoples.
If wildlife conservation is to be successful, we need to start getting local communities and indigenous people more involved in conservation efforts. They should not be seen as passive beneficiaries, but as the leaders of conservation efforts based on their knowledge, needs and vision. To facilitate this, local communities and indigenous people must be accorded the rights, responsibilities and decision-making powers over their land and natural resources. There is already sufficient evidence from around the world that the best conservation outcomes are obtained when this happens.
In addition, there must be more effort in placing conservation and natural resource management at the heart of national and sub-national economic and social planning instruments (e.g., in land-use planning). This will ensure that vital habitats, key wildlife corridors and biodiversity hotspots are appropriately recognised, managed and protected. We also need to restructure our economies to be more environmentally sustainable.
Finally, we need to increase the investment in, and benefits derived from, our conserved areas. This can take place through innovative payment-for-ecosystem services schemes, by improving the transparency and accountability in how current benefits are shared and utilised, and by including natural capital in our national accounting systems.
In recent years, more attention has been paid to the environmental impacts of colonisation — the ways in which European colonial expansion led to ongoing exploitation, deforestation, pollution and destruction of the planet and its peoples. As someone who is passionate about bringing about change in the conservation space, what does it mean to you to decolonise conservation? Is this an important endeavour?
Local peoples across the continent are fully capable of solving their own environmental, social and economic problems if the barriers to them doing so are removed.
I would say it’s an absolutely necessary endeavour!
A lot of what I’ve mentioned as failure of conservation speaks to this legacy of colonisation. People in poverty continue to be victimised as the perpetrators of environmental degradation who need to be “educated” and more strictly regulated, while the wealthy, who drive overconsumption across the planet and have the worst environmental footprints, are considered “enlightened” and lauded as heroes of conservation. This must come to an end.
We must recognise that local peoples across the continent are fully capable of solving their own environmental, social and economic problems if the barriers to them doing so are removed. The notion that successful conservation can only happen if it is white or expatriate led must be done away with.
But how do we do this?
First, we must have very honest conversations about how the legacy of colonisation has impacted conservation across the world. We need to address the myths and historical inaccuracies that have endured over time.
Second, we need to facilitate local communities and indigenous people to be active leaders in conservation work. This could be done through a number of ways — helping them organise themselves and build their leadership, strengthening their organisations, changing our laws and policies to be more inclusive, and making sure they are seated at the table where decisions are made.
Last year, the WWF released a comprehensive report on the critical role that indigenous peoples and local communities play in protecting the environment. Are you seeing a shift in attitudes towards community-driven solutions?
Yes, I am seeing this shift, but it is more pronounced at the policy level. There have also been a lot of pledges for increased funding for conservation work going directly to local communities and indigenous people, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to implementation. Current trends, however, are quite encouraging.
The truly impactful and long-lasting work of conservation is best done by local organisations and by people rooted in their communities.
That said, we must be vigilant against greenwashing in this respect. Far too many not-for-profits, governments and even private companies involved in conservation are generating lots of funding and political support on the back of claims of working with local communities and indigenous people, but in reality they are not. Just as insidious is the fact that many of these entities are gaining prominence by claiming to speak on behalf of local communities and indigenous people, when what they should be doing is getting those people to speak for themselves at the relevant decision-making spaces.
Why is this important to you and the work you’re leading with Maliasili?
In my experience, the truly impactful and long-lasting work of conservation is best done by local organisations and by people rooted in their communities. However, they struggle with the resources, leadership skills, and the abilities to build and manage strong organisations that can deliver impact at scale. This is where Maliasili comes in — to help local organisations and leaders overcome these barriers and become even greater leaders and more effective organisations.
2021 was one of the most catastrophic climate years on record, with extreme drought, floods, wildfires and storms bringing misery to millions around the world. How do you remain optimistic and driven to ‘do hard things’ in the face of such an all-encompassing crisis? What keeps you going and bolsters your resilience?
The hope that things can be better is what drives you to take action — because only if you think things can be different will you try.
Look at the crises that humanity has faced in the past — colonisation, slavery, apartheid — and think about how bleak it must have been for people going through those events at the time. Yet, they were able to overcome it. I think the hope that things can be better is what drives you to take action — because only if you think things can be different will you try. So I believe things can be better — whether it be in terms of climate change, biodiversity loss or inequality and injustice. We just have to start somewhere with whatever little we can, and as long as we persevere, we will eventually make it. That hope and optimism is what drives me and gives me resilience.
Where do you go to spend time in nature?
Nairobi National Park is my happy place. It is where my love for wildlife was nurtured by regular visits throughout my childhood and into my adult life, and it is my inspiration for the work that I do. I regularly volunteer with a citizen-led group to help protect and preserve this park. It’s special because it is perhaps the only national park in a capital city that boasts free-roaming iconic wildlife. If we can overcome the conservation challenges affecting Nairobi National Park, we can succeed anywhere else.
If we can overcome the conservation challenges affecting Nairobi National Park, we can succeed anywhere else.
The theme for Earth Day 2022 is ‘Invest in Our Planet’. What are some of the actions we can all take to make a difference?
It is easy to get carried away with using reusable shopping bags, planting trees and patting ourselves on the back for thinking we’ve done our bit to save the planet. But I think it’s more important that we start being honest with ourselves and the lives we lead, the systems we are part of, and really understand our impact on the planet. From that point of awareness can we then start making changes in our lives that will make a fundamental difference. When we invest in having a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle and in better communities and governance, then we shall start to see a difference.