It may not have appeared on many of our calendars, but yesterday was Africa Environment Day. To recognize the event, the South African Embassy hosted representatives from several African nations yesterday afternoon to discuss some of the initiatives their countries are working on to support sustainable environmental and economic development. After attending the session, I was impressed with the range of ideas and projects being put forward.
For example, right now Gabon is still glowing from the international attention it received while it played host to the season of CBS’s hugely-popular Survivor: Earth’s Last Eden series. Over 18 million people saw that the country was safe and politically stable, said Mireille Obame Nguema Moore, who was speaking on behalf of the ambassador. She said the country is now working on several projects, and aiming to become a “leader and innovator in conservation and sustainable tourism.”
One major Gabon initiative was the creation of 13 national parks, achieved with the help of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Michael Fay of the Megatransect project. The Gabon government continues to promote sustainable tourism through programs like Operation Loango, which helps train eco-guides in Loango National Park, who then act as ambassadors to the local community to promote the value of the park. They’ve also been working with PPG-Congo to establish a gorilla release program in the country, and have released 50 rehabilitated or orphaned gorillas into the wild. Increasingly interested in attracting the adventure tourist, Gabon is creating infrastructure to support travelers, and plans a “rainforest airport” which would be the world’s first sustainable airport.
Liberia is in a very different position from Gabon, in that most of its infrastructure was destroyed by the civil war.
“We have a challenge,” said Ambassador Milton Nathanial Barnes, putting things plainly. “If there was any good thing to come out of the war it is that we are at ground zero. Everything is broken, but we can build from scratch and make it right.” He spoke about finding a balance between sustainable development and encouraging growth and prosperity, and said an integral part of that was enabling community empowerment.
It’s a promising take on future growth in the region.
The Rwandan Ambassador James Kimonyo noted that “environmental degradation is directly connected to productivity,” and spoke about the effects deforestation, soil erosion, pollution, and overgrazing have on the region, the negative impact they have upon economic growth. But one model that he looks to as an example is the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the three national parks, including Virunga National Park, which is host to endangered mountain gorillas and has enabled job creation in the region. The park itself was decimated during the genocide, but now serves as a model for how sustainable tourism can help revive a fragile economy. “Conservation has an impact on economic growth,” he said. “Empowering people to own the process has an tremendous impact.”
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He also mentioned that the park now hosts an annual Baby Gorilla Naming Ceremony to help promote and publicize their conservation efforts. If you’re planning on being in Rwanda this June, be sure to bring a list of baby names.
After all the forward thinking, the Tanzanian Ambassador, Ombeni Sefue, looked back and reminded the panel that sustainable practices have long been in place in Africa and that cultural taboos reinforced conservation. “The Maasai could co-exist for centuries” in the bush without destroying their landscape, he said. “It was practiced by our ancestors, and we should not forget about this.” He then spoke about some of the challenges they face, and the balance that is needed to ensure sustainable development. “How many hotels can you build in the game parks without damaging the ecosystem?” he asked, and it’s an important question that we’re glad he’s paying attention to. He says that this type of thinking is being done in the form of environmental impact assessments on upcoming projects, and that they’re seeking an equilibrium between human and environmental concerns.
Photo: Ngorongoro, Tanzania, by My Shot user Zenon Platcha