Photograph courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize/John Antonelli
What can stop gun-wielding poachers, corrupt government officials, and powerful foreign interests from decimating Africa's endangered wildlife? Sunflowers. At least it can if you're Hammerskjoeld "Hammer" Simwinga, the tenacious conservationist who has used creative sustainable development ideas to restore Zambia's North Luangwa National Park and transform poverty-stricken villages.
When Simwinga began work with the North Luangwa Conservation Project in 1994, the local economy was almost entirely dependent upon illegal poaching, so rampant it had virtually erased dozens of species from the national park.
"Instead of going to school, children risked their lives walking deep into the forest to help poachers. Health standards were horrible, families were penniless, and wildlife had disappeared," Simwinga remembers.
Slowly, one village at a time, Simwinga introduced alternatives such as sunflower planting and processing for oil, beekeeping to generate profits while saving trees, and sustainable farming to improve both soil and nutrition. The NGO he eventually created, North Luangwa Wildlife Conservation and Community Development Programme, has helped more than 35,000 people and 60 villages. Along with new agricultural techniques, Simwinga's projects have reduced child mortality by introducing critical midwifery training and pregnancy care. Community schools have also been built through his program, helping local children learn to read, write, and go on to secondary school for the first time.
"Communities that had no local businesses before now have long stretches of shops, young people with entrepreneurial skills, and families that are making and saving money," he observes. Since all programs are tied to conservation efforts, the national park has blossomed along with the economy. Poaching is virtually eliminated, and more than 50 animal species have returned, even in areas where they had never been sighted before. Safari groups and lodges now dot the landscape, bringing jobs and ecotourism dollars to villagers. "All of this is seen as a direct result of working with us to protect and preserve the park," Simwinga says. "Today, local people truly appreciate, enjoy, and value the wildlife that has returned."
The 20-year road to success has been marked by struggles that might easily have convinced a less determined individual to abandon the besieged area. "Poachers and politicians were very angry when our programs began empowering communities and reducing dependence on illegal bush trading," Simwinga recalls. "Our entire staff was in great danger. At one point all our projects were seized by the former government, and we completely ran out of funds."
Working alone and often walking 19 miles between villages, he kept the program alive by developing a strong micro-lending system within communities. "People started managing the little money they had, and we built on that," he recalls. "That's really our entire philosophy—to build on small things. It forces us to perfect our ideas to make them work harder." The program's effectiveness can also be traced to an approach that makes villagers and local leaders part of the process every step of the way, creating a sense of ownership and community-wide participation.
Ultimately, Simwinga believes, conservation can save not only wildlife but his continent. "Economies in Africa depend on how well we take care of our environment. It's our most unique asset. If we wipe it out, we wipe out our future. We're bringing that message to the children, but it still depends on how well adults take care of what we have right now—whether we choose to plant a tree or cut one down. Sustainability has always been part of our culture. We need to return to those roots. As human beings, we have a higher responsibility toward the natural world. The moment a person destroys the environment, he destroys himself."
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