Community Engagement and Empowerment Are Central for Ensuring Sustainability of Biodiversity and Protected Areas in Ethiopia, Study Finds
This post was written by Yonas Tafesse, communications consultant, International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Ethiopia.
Protected areas are a key approach to global ecological conservation efforts and are recognized as the most important way to protect species in their habitat.
Ethiopia’s Protected Area System is larger than the global average, covering 14% of its landmass. In Ethiopia, protected areas comprise national parks, wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, forestry priority areas and controlled hunting areas, forming the cornerstones of the national conservation strategy.
The Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP), covering 2,150 square kilometers, is one of the major protected areas of the country and is managed by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, with support from the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Located 400 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa, BMNP contains a spectacularly diverse landscape. The high altitude, afro-montane Sanetti Plateau rises to over 4,000 meters and includes the highest peak in the southern Ethiopia highlands.
According to new research published in Ecosystems and People in June 2023, the BMNP is, however, under serious trouble because of human-induced actions, such as encroachment to the protected area and free grazing, leading to degradation of habitats, conversion of natural habitat to agricultural lands and conflicts between the park authority and local communities.
Dr. Wolde Mekuria, one of the co-authors of the study, indicates that these human-caused threats to the park largely arise from four overarching challenges. These comprise limited participation of local communities in the planning, design and management of the BMNP; low community awareness on the negative consequences of encroachment to the park and its natural resources; lack of livelihood diversification options for community groups; and shortage of livestock feed to restrict free grazing and promote stall feeding.
Community groups around BMNP are largely young agrarian and uneducated people, with large family sizes and very small landholdings. Thus far, most have not enjoyed environmental education by the park authority and other actors, thereby impacting the long-term biodiversity conservation efforts of the park.
The study further elaborated that local communities have a tendency of developing negative attitudes toward the existence and management of the park due to repeated wildlife damage to their crops and livestock. Moreover, the lack of community engagement in the relocation programs and the inadequate compensation scheme thereof contributed to the development of negative attitudes by the communities.
Existing evidence reveals that the park authority adopted the General Management Plan for 2017-2027 with limited participation of local communities, yet with the hope that the growing community dissatisfaction shall recede. This, therefore, contributed to conflicts between park authorities and local communities to persist, thereby further affecting the management of the park and the sustainability of natural resources.
The study further underscores that there are efforts to improve participation of local communities in park management and increase their economic benefits (through livelihood diversification mechanisms and off-farm job opportunities) but these are meager when compared to the needs of community groups inhabiting around the BMNP.
Dr. Wolde also stressed that managing the “park-people interaction and conflict” in the BMNP requires concerted efforts on improving communication with local communities, providing short-term economic benefits and identifying the reasons for the unhealthy relationships between park authorities and local communities and addressing them.
These issues can partly be addressed through, for example, creating and supporting effective and functioning multistakeholder platforms for dialogue and co-production of knowledge, continuous meetings and awareness-raising campaigns, and integrating more income generating activities.
The study further points out that effective stakeholder engagement and inclusive decision-making are needed to ensure the successful implementation of the long-term strategic plans of BMNP and protect its diverse natural endowments for generations to come.
For more information and queries, contact Dr. Wolde Mekuria, senior researcher, IWMI Ethiopia at [email protected].