Time to address low community participation in sustainable environmental management

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By Vusumuzi Sifile

Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) presents remarkable opportunities for boosting environmental sustainability, contribute to poverty eradication and enhance economic diversification in Zambia.

Recognising this potential, the government put in place numerous policies that seek to promote community CBNRM as a springboard for environmental sustainability in the country. Senior government officials have made pronouncements that re-affirm this commitment to sustainable community participation in environment and natural resources management (ENRM). Just recently, on 15th September, President Edgar Lungu told Parliament that Zambia is richly endowed with abundant natural resources, with each of the country’s regions possessing “unique comparative advantage that can be leveraged to promote investment”.

Despite these relevant interventions, environmental degradation remains very high, and its underlying causes remain largely unaddressed. Natural resources like forests and fish are being depleted at an alarming rate. The escalation of poverty has perpetuated the situation causing people to unsustainably exploit the environment for livelihood purposes leading to deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing, excessive use of fertilizers, among others.

The situation is not pleasing. Communities that rely mostly on the exploitation of natural resources are going deeper into poverty as their natural resources are getting strained to the extent of failing to sustain them. We have already seen many water bodies that have for many decades reliably met the fish requirements failing to meet the demand, forcing the country to import fish from countries like China. We have seen some areas which used to have good forest cover being turn into wastelands. An example that comes to mind is Kagoro in Katete District where the indigenous forest has almost been wiped out.

There are numerous places where trees have been cleared and the only place with indigenous forest cover in a village is the graveyard. This is not good, especially for a country that is ranked as one of the most forested countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The country is  blessed with vast tracts of land and perennial water bodies. Add to that the commitment from countries like Finland which has also committed themselves to support the development of the ENRM sector in the country. Zambia has what it takes to sustainably exploit the environment and natural resources. But that is not happening.

Where then is the problem? Where are we missing it as a country? A Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) Deepening CBNRM project, an intervention funded by the Finnish Government under CSEF 2 has identified lack of engagement of community members as a the biggest stumbling block to environmental sustainability at community level. Yes, the policies are there. But masked behind those good policies are weak or absent systems for supporting community participation in sustainable ENRM. Communities who are most affected by problems of deforestation, overgrazing, fish depletion and land degradation are marginalised in the design and implementation of CBNRM interventions. This results in little or no adoption of CBNRM. As a result, environmental depletion continues, as communities cannot participate at their full potential in the absence of clear systems to support such participation.

We need to face the elephant in the room: the lack of engagement of communities in implementation of ENRM interventions. For as long as communities are marginalised, for as long as they are not adequately engaged, their participation will remain low. From interacting with community members in districts like Katete, Petauke, Sinazongwe and Kazungula where PSAf is implementing the Deepening CBNRM project, communities are willing to drive environmental sustainability, but are being frustrated by the weak or non-enforcement of policies that enable such participation.

There are cases where community members have organized themselves to plant trees and revive community forests, but fail because of challenges such as lack of seedlings or lack of extension officers to guide them. The drive is there, but the approach is not working. The government must address the funding and staffing gaps, scale up the provision of extension services and increase the supply of seedlings and other inputs for effective CBNRM.

CBNRM can only succeed if citizens are effectively engaged, if citizens are informed and are able to also share their views with decision makers. The Government needs to complement the good policies that promote community based natural resources management as a springboard for environmental sustainability in Zambia. With citizens and decision makers full engaged, Zambia has all it takes to achieve environmental sustainability.

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